It has long been understood that a diet high in saturated fat, alcohol and refined carbs isn’t conducive to health. There have been numerous studies suggesting that saturated fat is bad for heart health, and alcohol must be limited in order to optimise health and wellbeing. However, the French always defied this rule, so why wasn’t that enough to make people stand up and pay attention? Well, to be fair many did, but they failed to find an answer because most of the studies and meta- analyses out there said saturated fat was bad, and that we should try to reduce it at all costs.
We now know better…
We now know that much of the research surrounding saturated fat was misinterpreted and largely, misrepresented, leading everybody to believe that it was the devil. Nutrition is constantly evolving, we know this, but the French have largely stood strong for their tradition of bread, cheese and wine despite almost all of the research advising against it. A meta- analysis (a large study that gathers all of the relevant information on a subject matter i.e. saturated fat and heart health) by Siri- Tarino et al. (2010) established that there was insignificant evidence to suggest that a reduction in dietary saturated fat improved cardiovascular health. Since then the advice that nutrition and health professionals give is the same, minimise saturated fat and increase the ratio of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but this isn’t necessarily the way it will stay.
The French Paradox
The people of France have baffled nutrition experts and medical professionals around the world with their research defying cardiovascular disease rates. This phenomenon, dubbed the ‘French Paradox’, was always thought to be because of their higher consumption of red wine, which contains the antioxidant resveratrol. More recently researchers believe that their cheese intake may also play a part, this is due to the fermentation process that cheese undergoes. It is thought that fermented dairy products may have cholesterol- lowering properties, which in turn fight against cardiovascular disease.
Fermented foods seem to manipulate the gut microflora (bacteria), and researchers from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University believe that cheese may encourage the gastrointestinal tract to expel more butyrate – a compound that has been linked to cardiovascular disease.
Where do we go from here?
Well, information gleaned on the mystery of the ‘French Paradox’ is positive because it may help to direct future nutritional interventions and medical treatments for cardiovascular disease. So despite the evidence behind cheese being (if only in a modest way) cardioprotective, more research is needed. The results of the study lead researchers to believe that cheese consumption is associated with increased levels of short- chain fatty acids in the gut, which they think is caused by the gut bacteria. It is also thought that lipid excretion is higher when fermented foods are consumed, which in turn increases the rate of cholesterol metabolism, ultimately reducing the risk of heart disease.
Despite this info, the study was small and more research is needed to substantiate this claim, so for now this so called ‘French Paradox’ will have to remain a bit of a mystery.
Zheng, H., Bertram, H. (2015). NutraIngredients.com. Cheese: The latest piece of the French paradox puzzle. Retrieved 14th April, 2015, from http://www.nutraingredients.com/Ingredients/Proteins-peptides-amino-acids/Cheese-The-latest-piece-of-the-French-paradox-puzzle
Siri- Tarino, P, W., Hu, F, B., & Krauss, R, M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Retrieved 14th April, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2824152/