International cuisines have long added variety to the American palate. Although modern, processed foods are gaining popularity in developed and developing countries, most regions still retain unique food cultures and dietary patterns that set them apart from the rest of the world.
In this series of internationally-themed articles, I’ll pick different countries or regions and share some of the most interesting and beneficial aspects of their food culture, and how they can enrich our own. First up: France!
The French Paradox
A typical day in France starts out with tea or coffee and a light breakfast of bread or croissant, butter, and jam. Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day, containing about four courses – a ‘starter’ (typically raw vegetables, cold cuts, or pâté), a main dish (usually red meat or poultry, plus a starch and vegetable), a cheese course, and a dessert (often fruit). Dinner is usually similar to lunch, but smaller.
For years, this basic dietary pattern has been the source of much consternation in the scientific community. The French get approximately 39% of their energy from fat, including 16% from saturated fat. (1) About 30% of that saturated fat comes from butter. Their fiber intake is relatively low, and they consume fewer cereals, fruits, nuts, beans, and rice than most other European countries.
Scientists and laypeople alike simply cannot reconcile the high-fat, ‘indulgent’ diet of the French with their notoriously low rates of cardiovascular disease, and have therefore dubbed it the “French Paradox.” (2, 3) Researchers have repeatedly attempted to prove that red wine is the reason behind France’s better-than-expected health, but there are a few other factors that likely play a more important role.
An Appreciation for ‘Rich’ Food
Many of the foods known to Americans as ‘rich’ and ‘fatty’ are known in Paleo circles as ‘nutrient-dense,’ and in French circles as ‘delicious’. In France, cheese is served with nearly every meal, butter is used generously, red meat is consumed often, and organ meats make frequent appearances in pâtés, sausages, or as entrées. In fact, these ‘odd bits’ are so widely consumed that tourists have to pay close attention if they want to avoid them! France even has a private club devoted to the appreciation of organ meats.
If you’ve read the above links to my previous articles, you know that saturated fats, cholesterol, and other nutrients found in traditional animal products promote health rather than degrade it. Unfortunately, the conventional scientific community refuses to consider the possibility that France has better health because of their diet, rather than in spite of it.
Prioritizing Food Quality
Although supermarkets are sadly becoming more and more popular in France, many people still do their shopping at specialty stores or farmers’ markets where they can be confident of food freshness and quality. It’s not uncommon in France for a shopper to visit four or five different stores just for food, which can include a bakery, charcuterie, butcher, produce stand, creamery, and fishmonger. (4)
Here’s a telling statistic about French priorities: a survey found that about 75% of French people would prefer – at the same price – a week at a modest hotel with gourmet food, over a week at a luxury hotel with average food. In stark contrast, only 10% of Americans would prioritize the gourmet food. (5)
In France, even schools make food a priority. Check out a couple of these school lunch menus (6):
From a preschool (yes, a preschool) in Versailles:
- Starter: sliced radish and corn salad with vinaigrette dressing, and black olive garnish
- Main: Roast guinea fowl (commonly eaten in France instead of chicken); sautéed Provençal vegetables and wheat berries
- Cheese: saint Paulin (a semisoft, buttery cheese originally made by trappist monks)
- Dessert: Vanilla flan and “Cat’s tongue” cookies
And here’s a typical menu for a school in France’s poorest town:
- Starter: Grated carrots or asparagus salad
- Main: Beef tongue or ground beef, pasta, and green vegetables
- Dairy: Cheese or yogurt
- Dessert: Fruit salad with honey syrup
A Positive Relationship with Food
The French have one of the healthiest attitudes towards food of any developed country. Mealtimes are of the utmost importance, and eating is seen as a social time to enjoy family and friends.
A study comparing the attitudes toward food of four different nations found that Americans equate food the most with health and the least with pleasure, while the French equate food the most with pleasure and the least with health. (7) Compared to Americans, a higher percentage of the French associated the words ‘heavy cream’ with ‘whipped’ as opposed to ‘unhealthy,’ and while only a third of Americans consider themselves healthy eaters, about three quarters of French people view their diets as ‘healthy.’ (8)
As much as it pays to be aware of food’s potential health benefits or risks, sometimes it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude, than the right food with the wrong attitude. (Remember the story of the ‘beer and pizza’ diet?) The French do a pretty good job in both respects.
What Can the French Teach Us?
I think the biggest thing we can learn from French food culture is to cultivate a healthy attitude towards food. Most of you reading this blog already know the benefits of eating nutrient-dense animal foods and prioritizing food quality. But people following an ancestral eating pattern are just as susceptible to unhealthy food behaviors as those eating a Standard American Diet.
So take some advice from the French: if you decide to eat a slice of homemade chocolate cake at your grandma’s birthday dinner, don’t wallow in guilt – just enjoy it! And as tempting as it can be to grab a Paleokit and run out the door, there’s something to be said for sitting down to a meal on a regular basis and making it a time to connect with friends and family. Food is one of the oldest and most primal sources of human pleasure, and reviving and cultivating that pleasure is something we could all benefit from.