The French paradox — and us
By Jerry Marterer
The catchphrase “French Paradox” originated in the 1980s. It was based on a study that found the French had a lower incidence of heart disease and related mortality despite a higher intake of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. Although some authorities called it an illusion based on incomplete health statistics, it became a popular notion that almost everyone wanted to believe in: that all one needs to do is to drink a lot of wine and eat rich food to lead a long and healthy life. It also launched a stream of self-help books on how to be French. Some were tongue-in-cheek. One was titled Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, which started a run on home yogurt makers.
My wife and I were lucky to have our own chance to test that theory. We had owned an apartment in Paris since 2003, but only after I retired in 2010 could we live there for months at a time. We gradually began behaving like the French — or at least like Parisians. It quickly became obvious to us that living in Paris as a local would be totally unlike our one- or two-week vacations of the past.
Some key factors:
Exercise. The only jogging we ever see in Paris is by the fire brigade. They are part of the military and run daily through neighborhoods as a unit. In Christmas season they sell calendars with “Fireman of the Month” photos. My wife tells me they are “not hard to look at.” We have never seen a United States-style gym either, although one American neighbor pays a fee to use a hotel’s fitness center.
The French do not walk for exercise. They walk to get somewhere. They make daily walks to markets, cafés and restaurants for lunch. The metros provide a “StairMaster” experience as you enter and exit the stops. Walking a mile to a concert, church or to enjoy the weather is a part of daily life. Besides, no French woman of any age would be caught dead in a jogging suit! Most apartments in Paris do not have elevators. Think of how fit you would be if you walked one to six flights every day — for life!
Diet. OK, we already know about the cholesterol and fat, but diet is not just about two ingredients. Diet is also about how much the French eat, when they eat and where they eat. In the 1970s, we lived in Wisconsin, which has a German/Scandinavian heritage. A local French-American couple opened a small restaurant. We never had an opportunity to try it because it closed after a few months. The locals complained, “They don’t give you enough to eat. We left hungry!” There is a saying in Europe that the Germans eat to live and the French live to eat. Living to eat makes each meal a conversation piece to enjoy slowly.
During a French home dinner party, good conversation is important. If you want to start one, just ask the table where the best restaurant is for duck confit, cassoulet, coq au vin or any other classic French dish. A spirited discussion will follow. Even elementary school children are served multicourse lunches as the next generation of gourmets.
Most boulangeries (bread sellers) in France are also patisseries (pastry sellers). The baguette is a national symbol and highly regulated. They have been the cause of riots in history. (Remember, “Let them eat cake?”) Bakeries must be open six days per week. There always seem to be two bakeries in each neighborhood — one closes Sunday and the other Monday. Baguettes may only contain four ingredients: water, flour, yeast and salt. Prices are monitored and controlled by consumer associations. The life of a baguette is short. After 24 hours they turn into baseball bats. We seldom buy one but when we do it is a half or demi baguette. This may also be part of the paradox. Parents of schoolchildren allow them one choice of pastry on the way home. It even has a name, le gouter, which is also the name of afternoon tea.
Many American restaurants expect diners to take home doggy-bags and size the portions accordingly. In France, portions are measured. In any case, the French leave nothing on their plates except for bones. It is quality over quantity. At 1 p.m., restaurants fill with neighborhood workers who order the “formule,” the three-course menu du jour. We also found that those who have big lunch would never have a big dinner at home.
Another popular choice for lunch or even dinner is the salade composée, which may include the usual lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, olives and for each variety a particular cheese, meat or seafood. My choice is always the salade de chèvre chaud with warm goat cheese on toast. My wife usually has the salade niçoise, which includes hard-boiled eggs and tuna. There is the nordique with salmon and shrimp, the auvergnate with blue cheese and country ham or perigourdine with preserved duck and foie gras. “Fast food” is against everything the French believe in, although adolescents can be found standing in line at McDonald’s. I assume they grow out of this, as well as other teen behaviors.
Processed foods are not a part of the French diet. Many fruits, vegetables and meats in the markets carry a pedigree in the form of place names, regions and even certifications. Our butcher on the rue Cler has a rotisserie, and we often buy one of his poulet fermier — farm-raised birds. He also gives us a jar of the drippings, as he correctly guesses we will be making soup in the following days. Next door at the greengrocer, we buy a hand-tied bouquet garniand the rest of the ingredients.
Charles De Gaulle once said, “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” (Today there are more than 1000 varieties!) The French consume 60 pounds of cheese per capita each year, versus 41 in the U.S. Unlike in the U.S., however, in France cheese is made with unpasteurized milk from goats, cows and sheep — another aversion to processed food. Studies and experiments suggest (but not prove) that cheese consumption in France does not affect a person’s weight due to compounds in unpasteurized cheese that increase metabolism and reduce the incidence of obesity.
Wine and well-being. Italy, France and Spain are the world’s top wine producers in that order. However, when exports are factored out, France is number one worldwide in per capita wine consumption, two thirds of which is red, and that may be critical to the French paradox. It is widely accepted that the skins of plants and vegetables are higher in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals — hence the promotion of whole grains and unrefined sugars. Wine made from red grapes contains resveratrol and other flavonoids that benefit the heart and blood vessels. The first hint of a French paradox came from a study by the wine industry.
The paradox and us. When we arrive in Paris for a stay of several months, we go through a reentry protocol: a trip to the market to buy fresh fruit for breakfast, lentils, a rotisserie chicken, fixings for soup and other dinner ideas. A stop at the local wine store stocks us up on regional reds and whites. We become “lunch people.” When we are out during the day, we return to our favorite neighborhood cafés and bistros. We buy a copy of the Paris Spectacles, which lists all the events, movies, concerts and museum exhibits for the week. We recharge our bus/metro passes. Being both of a “certain age,” it takes a week to get our “city legs” and to get over jet lag.
How to be a paradoxical Parisian at home. A two-week vacation in Paris will not do it. You may arrive back home with sore feet, a few extra pounds and vow a return to low-fat salad dressing and Diet Coke to atone. But you can adopt a lifestyle of slowly eating small portions, choosing seasonal fruits and vegetables, avoiding fast foods and processed foods, giving up snacking, enjoying a glass of red wine with meals and walking everywhere every day. The problem is that at home this is hard work. Being in Paris gives it a certain “je ne ais quoi.”
(Disclaimer: This article is not meant to provide medical advice. Many conclusions herein are based on opinion and suppositions. If they were hard, proven facts, there wouldn’t be a paradox!)
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.