Scientists may have solved the mystery of what is known as the French paradox: that while the French eat rich cuisine they remain a moderately slender and healthy population. It seems that this phenomenon can be explained, in part, by the size of their portions. Recent research has shown that meals are significantly smaller in French restaurants and supermarkets than in their US – and perhaps Australian – counterparts.
“The French paradox of low levels of obesity and heat disease is only a paradox if one assumes that dietary fat is the major cause of obesity and cardiovascular disease," said Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at Penn and leading author. "Recent studies suggest that the importance of fat intake as a risk factor has been greatly exaggerated", and portion sizes are much more significant than previously thought. So while the French eat more fat than Americans, they eat slightly fewer calories, which when compounded over years can amount to substantial differences in weight and health."
The French paradox has long stymied American dieters and scientists, puzzled by the ability of the French to remain trim while downing buttery croissants, creamy brie and decadent pastries. Just seven per cent of French adults are obese, compared with 22 per cent of Americans, and the mortality rate from heart disease is significantly lower in France.
Professor Rozin and his colleagues weighed portions at 11 comparable pairs of eateries in Paris and Philadelphia, including fast-food outlets, pizzerias, ice-cream parlours and a variety of ethnic restaurants. They found the average portion size across all Paris establishments was 277g, compared to a mean in Philadelphia of 346g – a difference of 25 per cent.
The researchers also examined references to portion size in Philadelphia and Paris editions of a leading restaurant guide. Serving sizes were not only mentioned roughly three times as frequently in reviews of Philadelphia restaurants, but, of these mentions, 88 per cent described large portions, compared to just 52 per cent in Paris.
“Many studies have shown that, if food is moderately palatable, people tend to consume what is put in front of them and generally consume more when offered more food," Prof. Rozin said. “Much discussion of the 'obesity epidemic' in the U.S. has focused on personal willpower, but our study shows that the environment (eg standard serving sizes) also plays an important role and that people may be satisfied even if served less than they would normally eat.”
In supermarkets, the researchers found 14 of 17 items studied were larger in American stores. For example, a candy bar sold in Philadelphia was 41 per cent larger than the same product in Paris, a soft drink was 52 per cent larger, a hot dog was 63 per cent larger and a carton of yogurt was 82 per cent larger.
The current bestseller, French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, looks at other cultural factors that influence waistlines around the world. Besides portion sizes, Guiliano argues that French people are more likely to eat and drink slowly, savouring their meals "with all five senses". She also says French women don't snack, don't weigh themselves and walk three times as much as American women.
References: Rozin P, Kabnick K, Pete E, Fischler C, Shields C (2003) The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France Than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychological Science 14: 450-454.
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