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Is our worry and concern over 'healthy' food impacting our health?

If you live in the United States and attend a dinner party, office party, happy hour or basically any social event, you may notice that we talk about food constantly. Not in a "let me tell you about this delicious lunch I had or I had the best tasting apple" way. The talk about food is more of the "let me tell you about my latest diet, why I no longer eat X or Y, how 'bad' I am for eating this specific food or statements declaring I'll have to 'work this off later'." If it isn't one of these statements, then perhaps its defending why someone is eating this specific food or choosing quinoa chips over tortilla chips because its 'healthier.' We talk about diets constantly, we talk about how we restrict constantly, we talk about how much we worry about food - without saying we are worrying about it. As a result of this, I see clients coming in scared and worried about what they are eating or not eating. They want specific answers if something is 'healthy' or not and how much exactly to eat of this food to make sure it isn't too much sugar, fat or protein. I don't blame anyone for thinking this way! Our culture and specifically diet culture has primed us to think like this and worry about how food impacts us. Every time a new food study comes out with media ready headlines, near panic seems to ensue. Red meat or no red meat. Is coffee the new killer? The real question is - how does worrying about our food impact our health?

Some research indicates that stressing about our food, verses viewing it as pleasure, may be impacting our health. This concept is often called the French Paradox. The typical French eating pattern is high in saturated fat. However, the French have lower rates of heart disease than the Americans. One study determined that "Complex behaviour concerning wine drinking and attitudes to food could lower CHD (coronary heart disease) incidence." I'm smiling as I read that statement. I suppose it would seem that eating for enjoyment, finding food as a pleasurable and satisfying experience and doing this all while sipping wine would seem like "complex behavior." The idea of all food experiences being satisfying, enjoyable and not stressful isn't exactly within the typical American dinner table or mindset - at least not with the current pervasive diet mindset. In addition to rates of CHD, the French have a longer life expectancy, much lower rates of dieting and decreased rates of consumption of 'light' foods and reduced fat foods.

What else is going on?

There are other factors at play, of course. Portion sizes is one area that is always mentioned when it comes to the French Paradox. In general, most portion sizes in France are smaller than in the United States. Culturally, the United States started increasing their portions around 1950 and portion sizes have continued to gradually increase. One contributing piece in the US could this be idea of 'value sizing' or providing more food for the money we pay for it. McDonalds was one company that took full advantage of this idea - thus their value menu. Many health researchers looking to find reasons for the French Paradox, point to portion sizes as one of the biggest contributors to American's higher CHD rates. They claim that all we need to do is watch our portion sizes. It is definitely more multifactorial than that! If we 'watch' our portion sizes, it adds more stress to the eating experience. When considering diners at a meal in France, they tend to eat slower, savor their food and enjoy their time with their dining companions. There isn't any concern with restriction, having less or watching what they are eating. Studies have shown that even at McDonalds in Paris, Americans tended to eat much faster while French diners took more time to eat.

One additional factor that may be contributing to the French Paradox? They aren't worrying about how this food is going to impact their health and they aren't stressing over what they are eating! It is possible that one very large factor making Americans health worse is that we spend too much time worrying and stressing about our food.

Now What?

I've seen first hand how cholesterol levels increased when the only change in a client's lifestyle was increased stress. Our bodies handle food differently when we are stressed. Some research shows that our body can even take traditionally heart healthy fats and store them as less healthy fats when we are stressed. What if instead of restricting, dieting, creating fear around food and increasing the amount of stress - we focus on pleasure, satisfaction and enjoyment? Research actually shows that when we are enjoying our food, getting satisfaction out of it and pleasure, that we tend to be satisfied with less food. Perhaps this is also why portion sizes are smaller in France - they are enjoying their experiences and are more satisfied with less food. One step in reducing stress with food is giving yourself permission to eat all foods! Curious how you could start to do this? Reach out and let's talk!



Attitudes to Food and the Role of Food in Life in the U.S.A., Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible Implications for the Diet–Health Debate, Appetite, Volume 33, Issue 2,1999, Pages 163-180.

2. Ferrières J. The French paradox: lessons for other countries. Heart. 2004;90(1):107–111. doi:10.1136/heart.90.1.107

3. Polivy, J., Coleman, J. and Herman, C.P. (2005), The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 38: 301-309. doi:10.1002/eat.20195


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