Jewish World Review April 8, 2003 / 6 Nisan, 5763

BODYFIRE: The French diet, the American paradox

By Eric Harr | For the past two weeks, I have been training in the south of France -- running the hills of Monte Carlo, cycling along French Alps and swimming off the Cote d'Azur -- for my competitive racing season

I have also been eating cheese -- Brie, Camembert and Roquefort -- like it's going out of style. Like many, I justify my consumption of this high-fat fare by recalling recent and well-publicized research showing that the French suffer a lower incidence of heart disease than do Americans, and that they are also slimmer. Some experts believe the healthier hearts and more slender waistlines are at least partly attributable to the "heart protection'' and hormone-balancing of the fats the French consume.

This is the "French paradox'': How can they consume all that wine and cheese and suffer less heart disease and weight gain?

In his book "The New Diet Revolution,'' Dr. Robert Atkins popularized the higher-fat/lower carbohydrate approach. Eat more fats and proteins, he suggests, as a means to stabilize chronically elevated insulin levels and reduce body fat. But what about the so-called Mediterranean Diet? Is it advisable for everyone?

"Some people have indeed experienced short-term success with a high-protein/high-fat diet,'' says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., author of "Power Eating'' (Get Pumped, 1999). "But remember, a record number of Americans are obese, and the number is rising. Advising a population that isn't known for its exercise habits to eat more calorically dense fats may not be the best idea.''

The French, and the Europeans in general, move their bodies more than Americans do. They ride bikes to the market, they walk their kids home from school, and they take long strolls after dinner. These things drive up their daily metabolic rates, which helps to burn off the high-fat foods they eat.

While quality fats are without question an integral part of daily nutrition, the Mediterranean Diet may not be appropriate on a daily basis in U.S. culture. Americans tend to lead busier, more frenetic lives that stretch out over greater physical distances than the French: For example, one day of work, shopping, chores and getting the kids to and from school might span 60 or more miles. That explains why Americans drive most places. Americans also tend to work longer weekly hours (43.2 for the average American; 34.4 for their French counterparts). That may leave Americans more worn out at the end of the day, and understandably less inclined to peel themselves up off the couch for an after-dinner walk.

Americans also tend to take nutrition-related advice a bit far. In the 1980s, when carbohydrates were king, we consumed bagels and fruit smoothies, and avoided fat like the plague. Now that "fat is back,'' we polish off entire Brie circles and expect our hearts to get healthier.

It's the exercise and movement part of the wellness deal that we're not upholding. The average American engages in less than one hour of physical activity per week. The French? Roughly four times that.

Dietary fat should not, however, be banished. Our bodies require fats to make cell membranes and certain hormones, and to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D and K. That's why most nutrition experts propose a daily diet comprised of roughly 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat for most Americans.

Our bodies can't make two essential types of fatty acids -- linoleic and linolenic -- and we can get them only through foods. The main sources of these fatty acids are vegetable oils, cheeses, nuts and fish.

Fat is a highly concentrated source of energy because it provides more energy per gram than any other food source. There are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat, compared to only 4 in a gram of protein or carbohydrate. Eating lots of fats has helped me train better and lose some weight while in France, but keep in mind that my "calories out'' are exceeding my "calories in'' -- which is the maxim of weight-loss.

If you are going to include higher-fat foods in your daily diet, you also need to invest the time burning off those extra calories, or your midsection may begin to look and feel like that soft circle of Brie.

Eric Harr is a professional triathlete, author and television host. His latest book is "The Portable Personal Trainer: 100 Tips to Energize Your Workouts and Bring out the Athlete in You''. Comment by clicking here.


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