The “French Paradox” has long been a source of wonder for us fat-assed Americans. How the hell are the Frenchies eating a high-fat, decidedly un-Paleo diet laden with bread, Brie, and Bourdeaux, and still maintaining an obesity rate that, despite growing in recent years, is dwarfed by those of the US and UK?
About 14 percent of the French adult population was obese as of 2011, compared with 8 percent in 2001. That may sound high, but contrast that number with 25 percent of Britons and 35 percent of Americans —the lattery of which is often barraged with dietary advice to avoid many of the foods that the French hold dear.
A new study published Wednesday in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry sheds new light on why fromage might be the ticket to understanding the French Paradox. The secret, it seems, is a little something called “cheese metabolism.”
Wait … it’s the cheese? “Meat and cheese may be as bad for you as smoking,” warn publications such as Women’s Health, citing a study that links an increased cancer risk with animal proteins. One Green Planet warns that cheese has become America’s top source of saturated fat, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—a group of doctors that collectively advocate a plant-based diet—argues that cheese is “loaded with fat, sodium, and cholesterol.” So how could regular Camembert consumption possibly be helping to keep waistlines whittled and rates of cardiovascular disease reduced?
Danish researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University think they may have found the answer. They compared urine and fecal samples from 15 healthy male participants who either consumed a diet featuring cheese or milk or a diet that included butter but no other dairy items. What they discovered was that the cheese-eaters had a different composition of gut bacteria, higher in levels of the compound butyrate—an anti-inflammatory fatty acid produced by intestinal fermentation—and it showed in their stool. High butyrate levels have been shown to actually reduce cholesterol absorption, improve metabolism, and prevent obesity.
Because the sample size was so small and funding was partially provided by the Danish Dairy Research Foundation, it’s crucial to perform larger tests before drawing significant conclusions about how cheese consumption—and which kinds of cheeses—could be the most helpful in terms of weight management. And the nuances of our gut bacteria have long been linked with how our bodies gauge appetite and store (or don’t store) fat.
But don’t just load up a bowl of pasta or thick slice of pizza crust with grated Jack and expect great results. Previous studies have linked blue cheese consumption to gut health and anti-aging properties—keep it classy and have a sliver with some fruit and red wine, another French staple that has been shown to have numerous health benefits.
Most importantly, the French understand the importance of a balanced diet. The good news is that maybe we can have our cheese and eat it too.