In the mid-1990s the world’s oldest inhabitant – a 120-year-old woman living in Arles in Provence – gave a television interview during the course of which she attributed her longevity to three things: using olive oil for all her cooking, drinking red wine every day, and giving up smoking at the age of 117!
It’s a heartwarming story, and it illustrates in a very real way the beneficial effects of something that has come to be known as the “French Paradox”.
Stated simply, the French Paradox can be expressed as follows:
As a nation, the French eat more than anyone else, drink more than anyone else, smoke more than most people, have more liver, kidney and gastrointestinal complaints and disorders than their US/ UK counterparts – and yet have one-third fewer deaths from heart disease!
And this apparent anomaly is even more pronounced in the south of France than elsewhere!
Well, scientists, dieticians and nutritionists have been puzzling over this question for years. They have carried out sudies and surveys, conducted tests and experiments, etc., and have finally decided that the answer to this paradox lies in three things:
* Olive Oil
* Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
* Red Wine
As you drive down through France, through the great wine regions of Champagne, Beaujolais and Burgundy, you are also moving from the land of butter and cream to the land of olives and olive oil. Dieticians and nutritionists the world over are coming to believe that the one overriding factor in the comparative absence of heart disease and other cardiological disorders in the communities living around the Mediterranean is the almost universal use of olive oil for cooking, dressing salads and flavoring foods.
It is now a medically established fact that those countries and regions where olives and olive oil are used extensively – eg Greece, Spain, southern Italy, southern France – have a much lower incidence of heart disease and other cardiovascular complaints than the rest of Europe.
Doctors say that we should try to ensure that at least 15% of our daily calorific intake comes from monounsturated fatty acids. Replacing butter, margarine and other animal and vegetable fats with olive oil is an excellent method of achieving this 15%.
Olive oil also stimulates the metabolism, lubricates mucus membrane and helps in the treatment of peptic ulcers, constipation, heartburn and stomach upsets.
It is also estimated that the average Provencal diet contains as much as 60 % more fresh vegetables than the average US and UK diet, and that a person in Provence will consume twice as much fresh fruit than their US/ UK counterparts.
Furthermore, a Provencal cook will invariably under-cook vegetables, thus ensuring that fewer valuable minerals and vitamins are lost during the cooking process.
So why not follow the Provencal example and try just lightly steaming your vegetables – or perhaps cooking them very briefly in the microwave – and then tossing them in a little extra virgin olive oil with just a sprinkling of fresh herbs?
And don’t use too much salt!
There may also be a link between red wine and the absence of heart disease.
It goes without saying, of course, that an excessive intake of alcohol is never beneficial, and can lead to a whole range of medical and social disorders. But it’s also true that people who drink wine in moderation tend to have a lower risk of heart disease than people who drink excessively – or who don’t drink at all!
Yes, that’s right. Scientific studies have demonstrated that it’s healthier to drink a glass of wine (preferably red wine) a day than to abstain completely. This is due to the fact that a moderate intake of red wine actually increases tha amount of “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream, as well as helping to reduce stress and lower blood pressure – all factors that can contribute to heart disease.
Another significant difference between French and US/ UK drinking habits is that on the whole the French tend to drink wine while they are eating. In the US and UK the usual practice is to come home from work in the evening, gulp down a meal and then go out drinking – mostly beer and spirits.
In France people still tend to eat more formally, with the whole family sitting around the table for a leisurely meal, accompanied by a glass or two of local wine. This is considered a much healthier practice and much less conducive to stress/ anxiety/ tension/ etc. – quite apart, of course, from being extremely enjoyable in its own right!
The recommendation, therefore, is to spend a little more time with your family or partner, consuming healthy food and wine, rather than simply demolishing a ready-cooked meal (which is probably full of salt and saturated fat) just so you can spend an extra few minutes down the local pub or bar.
Believe me – you will certainly benefit in the long run!
The French Paradox is not just an interesting and intriguing story. There are valuable lessons that we can all learn here: lessons that could give us a “kick-start” to a new, safer and healthier lifestyle.
Lessons that could even, at the end of the day, help to save our lives.