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Embracing the French Conundrum

Warning: Mild scientific language ahead.

As wine drinkers, we have all put some thought toward the impact of wine on our health. Some of us have delved into the vocabulary labyrinth that researching the topic quickly becomes (polyphenols, lipoproteins, and resveratrol, anyone?), while others prefer to stick to the “my doctor recommended one to two glasses of red wine with dinner” method. Leaving most of the intense research to the professionals has been my approach, but one of the prevalent studies that I came across in my Wikipedia-fueled primer on the subject caught my interest: The French Paradox.

In 1991, research scientist Serge Renaud came up with this term to describe the proportionately lower incidence in heart disease in France than in America despite the higher saturated fat levels in the typical French diet. He became beloved in the wine world when he attributed the lack of heart disease to the high amount of wine consumption in France during a segment on 60 Minutes. While there is some debate about the exact reason wine has this effect, scientists believe that sustained intake of resveratrol (which can be found in red wine in small quantities) has a similar effect as calorie restriction on weight management. Researchers also say daily doses of 200-300mg of the flavonoid polyphenol called procyanidin will lower blood pressure by decreasing the bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and increasing the good (HDL) cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. There are about 125mg of procyanidin in a small glass of red wine, hence the recommendation of one to two glasses of wine a day.

How cool is that?

Now, Renaud's statements were amended by the caution that moderation is the key to a healthier life, but you can’t deny that the French are on to something. This is a country known for its consumption of creamy cheeses, buttery pastries, rich chocolates, fatty meats, and—of course—wine, yet they’re not getting the downside of such a decadent diet at a higher rate than Americans, even though our average saturated fat consumption is lower than theirs! France also has a higher percentage of habitual smokers and a lower exercise rate than America. How can we get the benefits of the French way of life without packing up and moving to Paris?

One to two glasses of wine a day, just like the doctor ordered. That whole “moderation” bit is essential. If you go through a whole bottle to yourself every night, the health benefits of the wine are going to be offset by cirrhosis and other negative effects that alcohol has on the body. It also helps to remember moderation when it comes to the food you eat, too. American food portions are completely, ridiculously, oversized, and it’s unlikely our French counterparts are eating the same amount of food as we are. The ingredients in that food also matter a lot; most of our saturated fat intake comes from chemically-processed vegetable oils, rather than dairy and meat. The natural saturated fats of dairy and meat contain short-chain fatty acids, which help prevent calcified plaque buildup in arteries. Hydrogenated vegetable oil and trans fats, found in many processed foods, do not provide the same benefit.

American diets tend to be chock full of preservatives and salt, as well. While French fare isn’t all farm-to-table, fresh organic ingredients that signed up to be in the dish in the first place, they have a lower intake of pre-packaged, factory-processed food. The mentality in France is much more focused on getting the best ingredients you can afford and letting their flavors speak for themselves. If you need to cover your food in neon flavor-dust or anything labeled “spread,” odds are pretty high that the meal you’re about to ingest saw much more of a factory than it did a farm.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of mass-produced snacks just like most Americans. Seriously, don’t try and take my Oreos dipped in peanut butter. But if sticking to a French-inspired diet means that I get to enjoy fresher, higher quality ingredients like triple-cream cheese, fresh produce from the local Sunday Farmer’s Market, and prosciutto, and I can lower my risk of heart disease by pairing those meals with wine? Count me in!


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