French approach to diet


January 15, 1992|By Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D. | Edward R. Blonz, Ph.D.,Ed Blonz is a nutrition scientist based in Berkeley, Calif.

In an affront to America's growing low-fat consciousness, the French diet has stormed the shores.

In a two-pronged attack, hitting both the printed and electronic media, the French style of eating has been touted for its health benefits -- this despite the fact that the diet is often seen floating in fat and is typically flush with a daily intake of red wine. The message of the campaign was clear: The French diet can provide a pleasant passport around the debacle of heart disease.

A front-page story in the New York Times late last fall showed the results of a 10-year study: those in the Gascony region of Southwest France live long lives and suffer few deaths from heart attack -- even though their diet is higher in fat than any other in the industrialized world.

The second part of the attack came later that same day when a segment of "60 Minutes" focused the high-fat-low-heart-disease puzzle known as the "French Paradox."

What is it about French that lets them break the "rules" and still reap an apparent health advantage?

Aside from their abiding respect and love for good food, often mentioned is the French habit of having wine with their meals. Over the years many studies have revealed how moderate intakes of alcohol are associated with a decrease in the risk of heart disease.

Scientific research has attested to an ability of alcohol to raise the HDL component of the blood, which helps shuttle cholesterol out of the body. These protective effects, however, are only present with moderate intakes of alcohol -- defined as one to two drinks a day.

A two-year study recently published in the British medical journal Lancet was conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health. In the 44,000 men studied, there was a 25 to 40 percent lower incidence of heart disease in those who consumed a moderate intake of alcohol. Another study, in the British Medical Journal, found a similar 40 percent reduction in deaths from heart disease in men and women living in New Zealand.

While positive effects have been published using different types of alcoholic beverages, one study in the Journal of Applied Cardiology suggested that red wine contains additional components that reduce the risk of heart disease. This would have great bearing on the French paradox as they are the world's greatest consumers of red wine.

It's unclear whether it's the French who are doing things right, or simply we, in this country, who are not. But some of the traditional ways in which the French relate to eating do deserve some consideration.

Besides having wine with their meals, the French typically eat fresh fruits, vegetables and breads bought daily. They spurn shortening and vegetable oils in favor of butter. And their dairy intake has twice as much cheese and skim milk and half as much whole milk and cream as typically eaten in this country.

The Mediterranean diet -- that eaten in neighboring Italy -- represents another cuisine that celebrates eating and has managed to marry a high-fat diet with a relatively low incidence of heart disease. Their diet, however, is based more on olive oil than butter. But it shares the French focus on fresh foods and consumption of red wine with meals.

What the two examples point out is that there are many ways to approach a healthy diet. The common thread in the French and Italian approaches is fresh foods, relaxed attitude and a celebration of good food. Now those are things we can all take to heart.

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