Sacre bleu! French diet doesn’t meet nutrient recommendations

Typical French dishFrench food is famous around the world.  From the haute cuisine espoused by cordon bleu and the Michelin Guide to weird and wonderful dishes like frogs legs, the French are passionate about cooking and what they eat.

However, a study published recently in the Journal of Nutrition has found that the diet consumed by the majority of French adults doesn’t meet nutrition recommendations.  Only 22% of adults could meet dietary requirements by fine tuning what they already ate, whereas the remaining 78% of French adults would need to expand their diet.

The authors of this study used modelling techniques to create diet plans based on an individual’s “habitual food repertoire” – i.e. the kinds of foods they regularly consumed.  The idea of this approach was to calculate a diet plan that met nutritional recommendations without deviating much from the foods the individual already liked to eat.

More than a thousand French adults who were participating in the French national food consumption study provided seven day food diaries. The authors then tried to design for each individual a diet plan that met 30 different food recommendations by using the foods in their weekly food repertoire.  The designed diets varied according to the individual’s gender, age and observed nutrient intake levels.

The authors found that they could only put together diets that met all 30 recommendations for 22% of adults – i.e. only a fifth of the sample had diets that could be tweaked to be nutritionally sound on the basis of how foods were combined or how big portion sizes were.  These individuals consumed more energy and more fruit and vegetables than those whose food repertoire couldn’t be juggled to meet requirements.

On the other hand, it was mathematically impossible to design a nutritionally adequate diet for the remaining 78% without extending the range of foods they ate.  The main problem among participants with unsatisfactory diets was that their favourite foods didn’t contain enough vitamin D, although their diet plans also couldn’t be manipulated to within maximum sodium levels or minimum magnesium recommendations.

Unsurprisingly, feasible diets could be put together for every participant when the food options were not limited to the individual’s food repertoire.

This study suggests not only that the diets of most French adults aren’t anywhere near meeting nutrition requirements, but also that considerable changes will need to be made to the foods eaten in order to meet a healthy diet.  Maybe French food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all…

Maillot M et al. (2009) To Meet Nutrient Recommendations, Most French Adults Need to Expand Their Habitual Food Repertoire. Journal of Nutrition 139 (9): 1721-1727. DOI: 10.3945/jn.109.107318

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  1. This study was a bit of a strange one really – the authors looked retrospectively at someone else’s diet data. So no, there weren’t any measures of actual health in this study. On that note, we can’t make any conclusions about the actual health of the population studied, just infer that it’s not optimal because most participants could not feasibly been meeting nutrition recommendations.

  2. Did they measure the metabolic health or waist circumference of these individuals? The nutritional recommendations aren’t always perfect, and I’d be curious to know if these people are actually unhealthy – if not, why should they change their diets? I would venture that many are unhealthy, but knowing the actual health of these individuals would go a long way towards placing this study in context.

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