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Saturday, January 8, 2011

New Light on the French Paradox

Many back in the United States, and perhaps every where for that matter, have heard of the French Paradox. The French eat tons of saturated fats, smoke about as often as they breathe, drink good wine, rarely exercise, and yet seem to be in better overall shape than my countrymen. Not only that, on average they live 2 and a half years longer than Americans. Why does this diet seem to work so well?

Here are couple of theories which I have heard before:

1. All natural ingredients- The French rarely use preservatives in their food. But make sure if you ask someone in French if the food contains preservatives, use the word additif rather than préservatif, as the latter translates to condom.

2. The French walk a lot more- compared to more spread out countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia, the French can get away with walking to the grocery store, the bank, or the pharmacy. For example, I have at least 6 grocery stores within a 10 minute walk of my apartment, not to mention several boulangeries, boucheries, and épiceries. Many people in France, when faced with the choice of elevator or stairs, will take the stairs.

3. Red Wine- Red wine, when drank in moderation, is seriously good for you. For example, red meat apparently contains molecules that can lead to several different types of cancer. One study I read states that drinking red wine while eating red meat actually eliminates the harmful effects of those molecules. Among other benefits, it apparently lessens the risk of cardiovascular disease, may decrease the risk of lung cancer in men, and keeps Superman from kidnapping your children.

While I was back in the United States this past week, I was really enjoying getting to eat a lot things that I haven't had in a long time, such as good Mexican and Barbecue. Even after paying the tip, it was amazing how cheap everything seemed compared to France and in particular Paris, where people are going out to eat less and less since restaurant prices continue to rise.

I did a lot of grocery shopping for my parents as well. It was while buying vegetables for my Mom that this part of the French paradox dawned on me.

By comparison to Paris, groceries are ridiculously expensive in the United States. One bell pepper cost $2 US each in my hometown of St Louis. I went to several grocery stores in different parts of the city and this seemed to be fairly average. On the contrary, in Paris, among the most expensive cities in the world, one kilo (2.2 pounds) of bell peppers generally costs 2.95 euro, which at today's exchange rate would be $3.80 US. With this data, one in Paris could buy 8 bell peppers for the price of 2 in the U.S. This doesn't even include markets in France, which are occasionally cheaper than the supermarkets. There are some markets in Paris where one can buy a kilo of bell peppers for 1.20 euro. The few things that seemed cheap in the grocery stores in St. Louis seemed to be loaded with preservatives.

When it comes to fast food, this seems to be a little different. Personally, I have been to McDonald's 3 times since I have moved to France. The last time I went was last year, the day Julie and I moved into our apartment. We got two meals, and Julie got an extra burger. Our meal cost around 18 euros. We could have gone out to eat at a cheap restaurant for that price (without wine). To spend just over $23 at McDonald's in the U.S., one would have to order pretty much everything on the menu.

Though I haven't studied economics in a few years, the economics involved in this article are straightforward. An average consumer, when given a choice, usually goes for what is cheaper. Therefore, I present my new addition to the theory of the French Paradox.

France- an average consumer cannot afford to eat at restaurants regularly. Groceries are cheap by comparison, forcing French people to cook more. Fast food is becoming more popular here, but still has a long way to go to catch up to the United States.

U.S.- restaurants, mainly fast food chains, are very cheap. Groceries, noticeably fruits and vegetables, are very expensive, perhaps due to transportation costs, scarcity, etc. Thus people with little money want to get as much food as possible for their money, which leads to people eating fast food. Fast food is not known for being very nutritious in comparison to fresh fruit and vegetables.

My main point here is this: Given what I've seen and written, it seems that France and the United States encourage different tendencies with food. It seems that it is cheaper to eat healthy in France, which could also contribute to why French people, as a whole, seem to be healthy than Americans.

If you agree or disagree, or don't know if you agree or disagree, I'd love to hear what you think.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours at