The French Diet in China

In The ROS Theory of Obesity, I mentioned that the french remained lean in 1970 on a diet of white flour, butter (think croissants), sugar and red wine. Although I can’t find specific weight or obesity records from France at that time, it seems largely agreed upon in the oral history that the French were lean. This is my third post about China, the earlier ones are here and here.

I’d like to clarify my definition of the French diet: a diet based largely on starch, usually white wheat flour, and dairy fat. This is an ancient dietary pattern that has been dispersed throughout the globe. Cultures with this dietary pattern were historically found in France, Switzerland and all of Western Europe; in the Americas, especially in Appalachia and the dairy regions of the East Coast of the US; in Africa and in Asia. In fact, some of the purest forms of “The French Diet” can be found in Asia. This LA Times article details a nomadic yak-herding society in Tibet.

Breakfast was always tsampa: roasted barley porridge served with tea, yak butter and dried yogurt. Lunch and dinner were always yak and noodle du jour–nothing fancy, but solid, satisfying and tasty. Yak is a bit stronger than venison, and it was often prepared with oilseed greens (a cousin of broccoli), onions and some chiles.  The vegetables were, incidentally, an accommodation to the visiting lowlander. Self-respecting nomads donโ€™t eat plants; itโ€™s just not their place on the food chain.

Jonathan White, LA Times, January 23, 2002

One of the areas studied in “Diet, Lifestyle and Mortality in China” was a place much like the one discussed in the LA Times article. Xinjiang is in Northwest China in the Himalayas roughly between Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, and the traditional “French” diet of dairy fat and starch is consumed.

Xinjiang Consumption in 1983
Wheat Flour (g/day)371.6
Vegetables (g/day)1.1
Fruit (g/day)7.5
Milk and Dairy Products (g/day)856.5
Meat (g/day)121.1
Salt (g/day)18.2

And that’s it! That’s literally the whole diet. White wheat flour, dairy products and meat. Nothing else. This diet gets a Mediterranean diet score of zero. To be clear, a grape weighs about five grams, so the daily consumption of fruit was about a grape and a half per day.

Xinjiang, 1983, Male Office Workers
Calories Per Day, Male Office Worker3704
Male Height (feet and inches)5′ 6″
Male Weight (pounds)145
Male BMI23.4
Daily Calories Per Pound25.5
Daily Calories From Fat (Mostly Dairy Fat)1666

So sedentary males in Xinjiang, eating white flour, dairy fat and meat at the astonishing amount of 25.5 calories per lb of body weight remain lean. This is the equivalent of a 200 lb man eating 5000 calories/day. Yes, they are a shade higher on the BMI scale than the people of Nanan and Huain (of course the same men in Nanan were eating even more) but they are likely genetically different than the people of Southern China and we don’t know the extent that the increased BMI is due to increased muscle mass.