The French Paradox

My boyfriend is eyeing me uneasily from the couch as I chow down on a bowl of sautéed onions. This is, to him, one of my stranger quirks; he insists that nobody else sits down to a meal of solitary onions. They are missing out!

beerbatteredonionrings

One well-known form of the versatile onion.

To many, onions are good for three things: topping burgers, lining rings of fried batter, and accompanying sour cream in potato chip seasoning. Despite their association with so many unhealthy foods, onions are a secret powerhouse. As I took to Google to recite their benefits to my onion-averse boyfriend, I found myself sidetracked by a web headline reading “Are Onions Responsible for the French Paradox?”

The what?

According to a mouthful of a sentence from Wikipedia, the French paradox “summarizes the apparently paradoxical epidemiological observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), while having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats.” Many doctors believe (with strong supporting evidence) that the consumption of saturated fats is a major risk factor for developing CHD. Well, then why don’t we see much higher rates of CHD in France, a country well-known for its buttery pastries, creamy pastas, and rich cheeses?

That’s the French Paradox.

How is my favorite abnormal snack food related? According to the original article, onions contain compounds that improve blood lipid profiles, that decrease blood vessel stiffness, and that have anti-clotting properties. It submits that the consumption of onions may “reduce blood pressure, inhibit platelet clot formation, and help decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular diseases, and stroke.” It also points out that the French diet features onions prominently.

While this may be a contributing factor to the puzzling paradox, I have a hard time believing that this vegetable, amazing as it is, writes off all CHD diagnosis disparities between the French and other saturated fat-loving countries. Other explanations for the French Paradox have been proposed, such as the butyric acid contained in cheeses and, most famously, the piceatannol and resveratrol in red wine.

wine-pouring-into-glass-photo

This robust article also points out some cultural differences between the French and Americans that may contribute to lower incidences of CHD in France, such as their tendency to eat more leisurely meals, and the smaller average size of French portions.

Salon also has an interesting, if pessimistic, take on the French Paradox that supposes it’s only a matter of time before French rates of heart disease “catch up” to those of the Americans. Less interesting answers have also been proposed: Malcolm Law and Nicholas Wald, in their analysis, attribute as many as 20% of CHD-related deaths in France to undercertification of the disease. That is, as many as 20% of French deaths that would have been attributed to CHD in America or UK are classified otherwise.

To some, the French Paradox is hardly interesting at all; this blogger doesn’t believe that there is necessarily a causal relationship between saturated fats and heart disease at all, thereby rendering the paradox a nonissue.

Whatever the true reason for it, I find it fascinating that after decades of study this “paradox” is still baffling dietitians and sociologists. The topic of health is so vast, complex, and contentious that CHD incidence rates have been attributed to lifestyle choices, portion sizes, wine, onions, time, misdiagnosis, and to nothing at all.

It’s unlikely that we will discover the true nature of this “paradox” for quite some time. Still, even if they are unlikely to explain the French Paradox, at least I feel justified in indulging in my favorite weird snack.

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If you really want to dig deep, check out this Harvard study that really gets into the nitty-gritty about the benefits of resveratrol. It’s interesting stuff!

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