French Diet Is Not as Perfect as It Once Was

CC BY 2.0. Geoff Peters

The modern French diet is different from what it was in the past century, and researchers think it's only a matter of time until these Americanized changes catch up with the French people.

The French diet has long been considered the epitome of health. After all, how do the French manage to consume more wine and fat than the Americans while maintaining slimmer waists, much lower rates of heart disease, and living several years longer on average? The so-called “French Paradox” has been the source of much debate.

It has been argued, however, that our North American perception of the French diet is sadly outdated. There was a time when the French truly were much healthier – as in, back in the 1900s, before the current wave of Gen Y-ers had been significantly influenced by American food culture, globalization, and diasporas of other cultures within France. As a result, the present state of affairs is less impressive than it once was.

In an article called “The French Diet is Le Bulls**t”, writer Johnny Adamic cites the “time lag theory,” put forward in 1992 by New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle.

“The French consumed less animal fat than the Brits up until the 1970s (about 21 percent of total energy consumption from animal fat, versus 31 percent in Britain). The takeaway? The French weren’t eating that much fat back then. For the past three decades, however, they have been. And it should be catching up.”

Researchers say it is only a matter of time until the decline in health hits the French population – and it already has, in many ways. There are increases in pediatric obesity in boys, and increases in rates of overweight across France. There are growing pockets of food-insecure regions, where high-calorie, low-nutrient foods are the norm.

I spoke with a food sociologist from the Paris Institute for Technology for Life, Aurélie Maurice, who described the increase in American-style advertising to promote healthy eating and lower obesity. These have had the wrong effect on young French audiences, creating strong feelings of guilt about calorie intake, rather than emphasizing the importance of eating good food for pleasure, which has traditionally been the French way.

Even if the French Paradox is not all it’s cracked up to be, there are many things they continue to do right. Adamic explains that the French tend to take leisurely lunch breaks and afternoon naps; they eat smaller portions, sit down to eat, and continue to choose more whole foods and less sugar than Americans do.

But if you’re insisting that the French have it all figured out, what you really mean is that their grandparents did.