Dr. Edward Honig Assesses What the French Paradox Could Mean For Your Heart

Many people dream of being able to enjoy a diet with seemingly unlimited dairy, carbohydrates, and fat without having to worry about a higher risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). What if one specific nationality figured out how to do exactly that?

What is the French Paradox?

The French Paradox is based on the incongruous fact that while French citizens enjoy a diet that's high in saturated fats, they don't seem to have an increased risk of various coronary heart diseases. In fact, many nationalities who eat less fat than the French still have a higher rate of CHD.

In observation after observation, the French Paradox seems to hold up. The popular catchphrase counter-intuitive diet

low levels of coronary heart disease
rich in saturated fats, despite the best research showing that excessive consumption of saturated fats should increase that risk.

Origin of the Idea

The phrase "French Paradox" originated in the mid-1980s. Its first recorded use comes from a newsletter published by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. The man who brought the term into the public consciousness was Serge Renaud.

Serge Renaud's research is the basis. A highly-popular segment on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes.

The Research

The research made a splash, because it was hard to believe that saturated fat consumption and heart disease didn't have a strong link. According to the data compiled by the United Nations Agriculture Organization from 2002:

The average French citizen ate 108 grams per day of animal-derived fat (notably, butter). Meanwhile, the average American only ate 72 grams.
The French ate 4x more butter than Americans
They also ate 60% more cheese
French people consume much more red meat than Americans, including 3 times as much pork
By contrast, Americans consume a higher amount of vegetable oils

Despite this, American deaths from coronary heart disease were much higher than Frances, 115 per 100,000 vs. 83 per 100,000.

Renaud continued his research throughout the 1990s. During this time, he and his team came to some interesting observations about French--and indeed most Mediterranean cuisine. It was Renaud's research that paved the way for current practicing cardiologists like Edward Honig.

Most Popular French Paradox Theories

A few popular theories to explain the French Paradox include:
Exaggerated Link Between Saturated Fat & CHD?

The French Paradox has made many question the existence of such a link, or perhaps that there's a valid link, but that the French somehow counteract this link with some dietary nutrient that's unique to them

The Paradox Itself Is an Illusion

Others believe that the "paradox" is no more than an anomaly in how the French collect their health data. Researchers concluded that, relative to England, France had under-reported cases of CHD. Edward Honig, a practicing cardiologist at Glen Cove Hospital in New York City says that this might be the case.

Time May Tell...

Another theory to explain the French Paradox is the possibility that fats derived from animals may take longer to develop into heart disease. Proponents of this theory like to note that France's animal fat intake has only recently increased to its current level. In contrast, England has a long history of eating animal-derived saturated fat.

Selling the French Paradox

People worldwide are fascinated with the French Paradox. In one form or another, it's made its way onto bookshelves in many forms. A few of the most popular books centered around the French Paradox include:

The Fat Fallacy
The French Don't Diet Plan
French Women Don't Get Fat

Generally, these books advocate similar theories about the French lifestyle and diet. They're mostly targeted at British and American people with a higher rate of obesity and CHD.

Other Heart Health Factors

Self-proclaimed "experts" have proposed countless theories about why the French enjoy such low rates of CHD, but a few of the most salient theories other than the ones listed above, include:

Wine--Rich in resveratrol and polyphenols, red wine is thought to improve heart health
Higher consumption of short-chain saturated fatty acid and less trans fat
More fish (the average French diet includes fish 3 or more servings of fish)
Smaller portions of food, eaten at a slower, more intentional pace
Lower sugar intake--Americans eat a lot of sugar, ironically in many low-fat or no-fat food alternatives
More liquids, including soups, tea, and water
More fresh and in-season food, providing a better balance of nutrients

Edward Honig says that while many of these will improve someone's heart health, none of them should be thought of as a cure-all. While the French have a lower level of CHD, it's far from nonexistent.

It's likely not any one particular thing, as much as it's a combination of these factors. If the French can inspire other countries to make positive lifestyle changes, then why not embrace the paradox?

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