The ‘French paradox’ revisited: le plonk or le stairs?

1 March 2012

JUDY YARWOOD muses over the French ‘healthy’ lifestyle.

As a new year begins, we often, for better or worse, reflect upon the previous year’s achievements before turning our thoughts to the year ahead. Not surprisingly, given our obsession with our health, our reflections tend to focus on our eating and exercise habits … and the consequent results.

For three weeks over the festive season, a Parisian joined our family celebrations. This welcome guest made me – apart from being grateful the All Blacks managed to hold out for those 20 defining minutes – reflect on the so-called ‘French paradox’.

The accuracy or not of this ‘paradox’ has long been the subject of medical, scientific, and lay conjecture. Why does France, a country renowned for its splendid wines and fine dining, paradoxically boast some of the lowest rates of obesity and cardiovascular problems in the developed world? Conversations with our Parisian visitor over those weeks provided some insights into this particular enigma that are worth sharing.

Le food & le plonk

Spend any time in France and you will quickly be familiar with all the elements of French cuisine; the cream-filled pastries, the fine breads from the boulangerie, aperitifs in the late afternoon, and a fine French burgundy wine with dinner followed by a brandy digestif. In Lyon, an entrée of pate de foie gras (the fatty liver of a goose force-fed with corn and dripping with cholesterol) followed by pigs trotters cooked in duck fat would warm any Lyonnais heart. The French in the cooler, rural regions often enjoy a diet heavy in fat and starch, like pate, terrines, sausages, and bacon with potatoes and cheese. Whereas down in the warmer climes of the south, the so-called Mediterranean diet – high in fruit, vegetables (especially tomatoes), fish, pasta, and olive oil – graces the table. The point being that, as in most countries, there is no one way of living or eating. Yet walking around Paris, it quickly becomes apparent that most Parisians are slim, elegant and, dare I say, chic. So how do the Parisians/French do it?

Le stairs

The bulk of Paris, and indeed most of urban France, has a particular apartment building-style designed in the latter half of the 19th century by architect Georges-Eugene Haussman.

These apartment blocks stand six storeys high, and in most of them, the only way up to your apartment is by stairs. Parisians spend most of their day trotting up and down these stairs to make the twice daily trip to the boulangerie for fresh bread, going to and from work, carrying groceries home, and calling on family and friends. Also owning and driving a vehicle, let alone being able to find a park, is rare. The result being that most people walk or use the Velib (the public bicycle-sharing scheme running since 2007, now with 20,000 bikes) or clamber up and down the stairs to the Metro underground system. All of which adds up to a lot of daily physical activity.

In short, perhaps the answer, and possibly the message, is not that the French drink and enjoy red wine because so do many cultures. But instead that many French, particularly Parisians, engage in physical activity ‘all day, every day’ as they go about their daily lives.

Le Kiwi paradox?

On the other hand, many of us New Zealanders exert much of our mental energy figuring out how to make the activities of daily living easier – lifts, vehicles, and remote controls abound. One of the more curious sights is to be found in airports where passengers, after 12 or more hours sitting immobile on a long distant flight, will queue for the escalator while the stairs alongside remain unused and uncluttered. Similarly, drivers will take several turns about a car park in an effort to park just that bit closer to one’s destination.

The lesson, like most things in life, is relatively simple. To be or remain healthy, slim (if so desired), elegant and possibly chic – the solution accessible to all is physical activity.

One could therefore argue that the true paradox is why – despite the numerously proven physical and mental health benefits of exercise – do so many of us prefer the sedentary lifestyle. I’ll leave you to ponder this question.

In closing, it’s worth mentioning that, apart from unwanted earthquakes, our Parisian visitor loved all New Zealand had to offer! The scenery inspired him (we walked the Akaroa heads and parts of the Queen Charlotte track) and the food was a revelation to be savoured (especially lamingtons and Kiwi barbecued beef). And the wine, of which there were several, met with approval … well most of the time – he was, after all, a Frenchman!?

Judy Yarwood is a principal lecturer and research leader at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology’s (CPIT) nursing school.