Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Angels in the Architecture - Part 1

So I spent a week in France a couple of weeks ago. While I was there I got to see the French Paradox firsthand. What is the French Paradox? It is a study showing the lack of Coronary Heart Disease in the French population despite a diet that is high in saturated fats. The only problem with this so called paradox is that it really seemed pretty obvious to me after seeing the diet that there was no such paradox at all.

Typical Morning

Breakfast is a rather big deal in France and, from what I've heard, most other parts of Europe. No matter where I went there seemed to be a buffet of meats, cheeses, whole grain breads, healthy cereals, yogurts, juices and always coffee. I gained quite a bit of weight despite walking something close to 75 miles during my week in Paris and Versailles. I don't blame this on the food, I blame this on a disrupted sleep cycle (more on detrimental sleep cycles here). But I could also make an argument that it was because I had encountered nutritious food for once in a good long time and didn't know how to handle it.

One fine morning I thought about everything I was eating in France and there seemed to be something amiss - preservatives or at least a whole periodic table worth. The yogurt I had was almost always Greek and it came in little glass containers that could be recycled. I remember such containers from the 70's and it made me wonder why American manufacturers ever switched. Oh wait, I forgot: money. It did really get me to thinking about what might be in the plastics surrounding my food. If they were worried about broken glass which I saw none of, they would do like the French and install recycling containers on the streets that are specifically for glass (they are everywhere but not noticeable unless you know what they are and what they look like - sneaky).

Something also occurred to me, most of what I was eating was cultured which meant there were still some active cultures in what I ate.  Gouda, filled with live cultures, was often present for breakfast and lunch and of course yogurt was as well. Other foods had a high vitamin or fiber content (brie is very high in B12). All the meats seemed to be naturally cured and they tasted fantastic. At times during the week I would hit Carrefour or Monoprix and grab a baguette and some meats and I can tell you there is a big difference in taste when something has minimal preservatives.

Typical Lunch

In France, companies provide cafe's inside the building for their employees. This is fairly typical in France. Companies also help subsidize the price of meals because it is beneficial both to their enterprise and to their employees. When I ate at some of these, I encountered something that once again reminded me of living in the 70's. The cafeterias were huge even in the smaller buildings. Glass ware was by the check out registers. Orange and green wall and chair colors abounded and long lunch tables filled the room. It was like an American school cafeteria but somewhat retro.

Food was plentiful but you had to try really hard to eat your way into a bill larger than 5 Euro. My first experience in a French cafeteria had me grabbing a flat steak cooked to order along with some breads and cheeses with a small cup of balsamic vinegar. Oh and lest I forget, a chocolate mousse that didn't seem to be chock full of sugar or corn syrup. In the end, it was way too much but well worth the 3 Euro I spent.

If you've ever been to France, you will immediately notice that people hardly ever have soft drinks with lunch or dinner (egads! breakfast! perish the thought!). You will sometimes notice wine but always there is water. If you are in a group, one of you will offer to go fill a carafe with water and bring it back to the table. It's very typical. When's the last time you chose the water option when taking lunch? That's not to say that there aren't soft drinks everywhere, it's just less prevalent to drink a Coke Light while you eat.

After lunch it is traditional to go to another part of the cafeteria and have espresso. Have a nice anti oxidant rich cup of black goodness after your meal? I will, thank you please.

One more note on lunch: most of what is served is very protein rich and rather low/slow carb. I had trout almondine one day. On another day I had a 'salad' which was a bowl of green lentils covered with a sausage and a slab of ham. The only carbs that I encountered most times were breads and a lot of those were whole grain or fresh baked (read: no damned preservatives). Folic acid isn't packed into everything bread product either. Dammit, America, quit trying to shove folic acid into everything I eat: I'm not pregnant!

Typical Dinner

Dinner is an event of sorts for the French. When you go out to dinner it is a slow affair with numerous course if you so choose. Don't expect it to be like your 50 minute run through Red Lobster. Typically you will eat at a later hour than the American normal and eat over a period of a good hour and a half or more. Sure you can hit McDonald's (more on that in a moment) or grab something from a corner cafe' to go but a nice sit down will do you good. Also a three course dinner in a decent restaurant can have a less traumatizing effect on your pocket book than it does in the States. For example, I had a three course meal, in the Latin Quarter, of escargot, beef burgundy and chocolate crepes. This cost a fixed price or prix fixe of 15 Euro (approx $20 U.S.) . Now that includes tax and tip (though it is a customary to leave a little more if the service was good for drinking money - pourboire).  Now for that price you are not getting a small meal. The hunks of beef in the beef burgundy were the size of a child's fist and were swimming in rich gravy. The escargot was smothered in garlic and butter and I swabbed it up with the basket full of bread that was put before me. I will honestly remember that meal for the rest of my life. Used to having food shoved at me so that a restaurant could turn a table I was surprised to find that each course wasn't served or cooked until the last one was finished. I took my time and enjoyed it all.

Paradox, What Paradox?

Frankly, I had an inkling that the French Paradox was complete crap because it overlooked some factors. One, I don't believe that certain fatty foods lead to heart disease and several doctors and studies bear this out. Two, American foods are packed with lots of chemicals and additives - some for preservative reasons and others for 'health' reasons. For instance, our government has made it an imperative to shove folic acid in a lot of our food. Now, folic acid is fantastic for pregnant women who are in jeopardy of having babies with low birth weight (we seem to have the opposite problem here in the U.S.). However, too much folic acid has been linked to cancer in men. Lovely.  Also a lack of folates cause weight loss which makes me wonder what an abundance causes.

As I mentioned before, French food also has cultures. Even in McDonald's you seem to find foods that are more whole (if that makes any sense). I had potato wedges that came with a little container of chevre' (goat cheese and herbs) and it was fantastic. I also ate a Le M (an awesome burger) which only had 38g of sugars but had 35g of protein. Remember, McDonald's likes to source locally even if some of the French get their panties in a twist over uses of craft cheeses in some new meals. I suspect that's why the cheese (Swiss), bun (baguette style) and meat tasted well... fresh. Also the romaine lettuce leaf (yes a romaine lettuce leaf) and tomato didn't taste like it had been swimming in chlorine all day.

I don't want it to sound like I am making the Europeans out to be especially clever because honestly you can find something bad for you if you look. The key is: you have to look. There aren't a plethora of Mexican food restaurants. I personally never saw one on my travels but from what I read is available they do seem to have healthier fare than the ones in the U.S..

Also what hits you if you decide to grab a dessert or bar of chocolate or pastry is the lack of sugar or corn syrup. I think when all the extra sweetness is gone you can actually taste what you are eating. Oh and you can grab a nice chocolate or dessert just about anywhere. Chocolatiers and pastry shops are ubiquitous and that made me wonder, where are all the morbidly obese people?

On any given street you can find huge chocolates or sinful pastries or massive crepes. I could have spent my entire week taking pictures of delectable creations sitting in shop windows in Paris or Versailles. Still, wherever I looked there were fit people walking the streets. Now there was a clue: walking the streets.

Around France parking is at a minimum. You can very rarely park somewhere close to your intended destination, you have to walk the rest of the way. Driving is a pain anyway, so why do it when there is so much public transportation? Unless you are running around the country (debatable) there is no need to have a car. It is actually much quicker in most circumstances to take a train or the Metro to get where you want to be and then walk the rest of the way.  What's even weirder is that I didn't see any of those roustabout scooters I seem to see everywhere in America.  Surely there must be folks with mobility issues in France. Or could it be that there are fewer folks with such issues? I am not really sure. Perhaps our culture and diet are killing us.  They can attribute the 'paradox' to wine consumption but there is a lot more going on here.

Coming soon, Angels in the Architecture Part Two (non diet related stuff): Paris does look better wet and I think I solved the mystery surrounding the construction/engineering of the Colossus of Rhodes but I wasn't allowed to take pictures.  
Boeuf Bourguignon
Boeuf Bourguignon
Boeuf Bourguignon
Boeuf Bourguignon