The French Paradox is no myth. Validated by the obsession with books such as “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” “Bringing up Bébé” and “At Home with Madam Chic” there is this constant phenomenon with how the hell the French (and their kids) eat buttery croissants, rich pastries and fatty cheese, guzzle wine, and yet maintain this elegant, thin-ankled, wasp-waisted, svelte figure. Don’t get me wrong, there are overweight people even in France, but According to the WHO (World Health Organization) the US ranks #6 in the world for most obese population, whereas France ranks #34 (and Italy ranks #68!). The same statistic shared that a mere 16% of the French population is just overweight, while in the United States 70% of Americans are (okay, the stat technically said “69.9%”, but STILL)!
So as a Frenchie aficionado and someone who spent countless seasons of fashion weeks in Paris, the South of France and its Basque Country, I’ve come to learn a few truths from these divine divas that I have mentally taken note of and filed in the back of my brain for every time I pick up a fork. And here are my top 10’s for you to relish and keep in mind while nurturing your healthy lifestyle:
1. They Say non to Desserts-for-Breakfast.
I know what you’re thinking: WTF, the French live on desserts!? While the French don’t do scrambled egg, hash and bacon (or really any heavy, savory-type) breakfasts and opt for ‘sweet’ options per say, a French breakfast is super light and definitely not a typical sweet breakfast by American standards. To Frenchies, a café au lait and/or tea is a must, and they pair it with a small serving of dainty pastry (piece of toast with jam, a plain croissant, a pain au chocolat, or a few ‘biscuits’ that are fiber-full and taste sort of like granola). To put things into perspective, a croissant from the bakery chain Paul, for example, only has 220 calories and no sugar. A scone from Starbucks has 500 calories and 30+ grams of sugar! So basically that and classic American breakfasts of “French” toast, pancakes, muffins, crepes, apple tarts, éclairs are what tourists eat for breakfast and the French frown upon—because they are really desserts.
2. They Don’t Snack in Between Meals.
It’s just that simple: The French do not snack in between meals. They do not keep energy bars in their desk drawers. They don’t sit in front of the TV with a bag of chips. They sip on espressos throughout the day (so maybe that, or their cigarettes (!) help curb their appetite) but they just don’t do food in between breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are super hungry when meal time comes around and actually take in a lot of calories compared to other countries once they do eat a solid meal (still nothing compared to USA’s calorie intake), but they don’t gain weight because of how they schedule/digest their meals.
3. They Are Masters of Portion Control.
In France, you won’t find many all-you-can-eat buffets and unlimited pasta, breadstick and dessert bars. It’s no surprise that portion sizes are monumental in the United States, but did you know that an American “small” sized soda is still larger than a French size “large” soda at a place like McDonald’s? Or their Big Mac is only 490 calories, when ours is almost 600 calories? Even if the French do eat at Mc-y D’s, they end up taking in less than half of the calories we would ordering that same meal here in the USA because they just eat less food. That tells you something about how much volume we ingest, compared to how much we really need to eat to survive. Did you also know that a typical French place setting has plates that are 25% smaller than a typical dinner plate sold in the USA? Not only do they pile less food on their plates, but their culture is one that does not go back up for seconds. Think about that. We really need to cut the amount of food we eat by at least a quarter. I feel so gluttonous right now.
4. Frenchie’s Pay Up for Quality of Food Instead of Quantity.
Along with how much you eat, it’s important to tie in the quality of food—which the French are snobby about, there is no doubt about that. Did you know that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1901 the average American family spent almost half of their budget on food, and only 3% of that went towards meals away from home? We cared so much about the quality of our food that we paid half our budget on it! Today we only spend 13.3% of our budget on food, and 42% of that money is spent in restaurants. So the cost of feeding our family has actually gone down in comparison to how much money we make, and most of that is spent eating out. (Meanwhile everyone complains that it’s ‘so expensive to eat healthy.’) In France, it’s normal to frequent markets for the best and freshest quality ingredients. You get prime meat from a real butcher, fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market, artisanal bread from the baker– not all this stuff made to sit on one supermarket shelf. There, you won’t see someone argue over the price of their steak at a restaurant for a good quality piece of meat, whereas in the US, you get a 2-for-1 deal at Charlie Brown’s and an oversized, over processed, over seasoned-because-it-was-frozen-sitting-in-a-box-for-6-months piece of “steak,” because… why pay more for a grass-fed, pasture raised beef cut if its just so much more per pound? Their bread isn’t made with 40 ingredients, just your basic flour, salt, yeast and water—and believe me it doesn’t mess your intestines up the way American bread does. They simply eat better, richer, purer foods—and find pleasure in having good quality meals instead of gorging on shitty food.
5. Their Diet is High in Saturated Fats (and That’s a Good Thing!)
Butter. Cheese. Meats. Did you know that France eats the most saturated fat when compared to all of the countries in Europe, yet has the lowest rate of heart disease deaths on the entire continent? Here we are in America, buying skim milk, ditching our egg yolks, and trying to live a life free of meat, oils and butter when in the past 30 years, the amount of US-consumed fat has fallen from 40% to 30, while obesity has doubled and heart disease has remained our #1 killer. The French use quality butter (pasture fed cows) and their dairy sources are all raw— they don’t pasteurize their milk and milk products the way we do. As a result, ingesting saturated fat has been shown to have positive effects on their bodies, including:
- Liver Health: Saturated fat encourages the liver cells to dump their fat cells, which helps the liver to function more effectively.
- Immunity: Saturated fatty acids, especially the kinds found in butter and coconut, help white blood cells to recognize and destroy invading viruses and bacteria.
- Hormones: Eating saturated fat tends to increase free testosterone levels, which helps to repair tissue, preserve muscle, and improve sexual function.
6. They Have Some Form of Salad with Almost Every Meal.
This doesn’t mean your typical 700 cal. Caesar, Cobb or Taco Salad. This means, a light plate of farmer’s market fresh crudité or “salade verte”—field greens—with quality EVOO and just a hint of lemon or vinegar (you don’t want to spoil the taste of that glorious wine you are having with your meal!). They absolutely do not use processed/bottled dressings and they definitely don’t load on the trimmings that we Americans do (think: bacon bits, croutons, glazed nuts, and the weird unidentified crispy stuff you get at restaurants). Having salads is the way to eat vegetables as compliments to lunch or dinner, and enjoyed as a part of your meal—not just a boring app or side.
7. The Art of Indulgence.
The French are indulgers. They (and the Italians) are always saying that we Americans don’t know how to enjoy life. We get burnt out by work, we rush through meals, we eat processed “fat-free” sweets that really taste like shit, and use plastic cutlery and paper plates as we munch on dinner in front of the TV and on a couch. This goes deeper into our meal psych as well: when we do indulge, we feel guilty and have this angst towards good, rich quality foods. The French don’t have that. There’s no food-therapy concept and they really don’t diet the way we do—in fact they are the anti-diet. And that’s why they are able to have such self-control over the “bad” things we go gaga for— cheese, macarons, croissants, pastries, bread, etc. They indulge a little, but to them it’s not indulging, it’s having a taste, and that’s enough satisfaction. It’s actually normal for them to leave half of their dessert on their plate, just because “I can try another piece tomorrow if I want it.”
8. Forget “Grab a Quick Bite,” Eating is a Social Event.
The French see meals as a time for enjoyable socializing, not so much as a regimented necessity of nourishment that needs to be squeezed in throughout the day. So basically, they rarely eat alone and in a hurry. They don’t eat at their desk in the office, or munch on a meal replacement shake while on the metro. They eat a big lunch (hence, dinner is much lighter at night). They sit down, eat while gabbing away, and in turn eat more slowly, savoring and eating less than one would by inhaling a large meal because you’re rushing through it. To them it’s tacky to eat while walking or traveling, so that pretty much takes fast food chains out of the equation for food options as well. (That’s why they don’t have big breakfasts, because they rather not eat than be seen eating a McMuffin on the train). Key takeaway is to make meals a production: sit at a table, proper silverware, drinks and good company alongside. Enjoy your meals, and savor them slowly.
9. They Don’t Drink Their Calories.
Okay, they are known for drinking wine, but really—how many calories are in a glass of good wine? Depending on the grape, about 120 calories per glass of red, some whites are less. Even a good champagne is less, about 80 calories per serving. Compare this to classic sugary cocktails we drink in America—Cosmopolitans, Margaritas, Long Island Ice Teas, Flavored Martinis, Mike’s Hard Lemonade.. you catch my drift—and you’re talking double if not triple the calories drink for drink. And aside from alcohol, they are not big soda and juice drinkers either. A “juice” in France is really a jus frais pressé, which is freshly pressed juice. You can order a citron pressé in which they serve you a freshly squeezed orange or lemon with a side of (still or carbonated) water, ice and sugar, and you make your own little refreshing mock-tail. Sure you can buy packaged drinks and soda’s at the nearest shop, but really they drink mostly water, tea, coffee and “cleaner” alcohol.
10. They Live an Anti-Sedentary Lifestyle.
Let’s face it, French people (and Europeans as a whole) are more active throughout the day. Sure if you go to France you won’t find gyms and health spas on every corner as you would in New York City, but the French’s whole “walking around all day” lifestyle totally trumps our “1-hour of cardio on the elliptical.” Researchers from the University of Tennessee and Rutgers University found that on average Europeans walk 237 miles every year, whereas Americans only walk 87 miles per year. Europeans also bike more, and average 116 miles a year compared to just 24 for Americans. I hate to say it but more of a lifestyle change than diligent a gym ritual. Americans have to get more active.
And there you have it ladies, the 10 secrets to an anti-dieter’s diet. Easy enough changes to incorporate into your everyday lifestyle, don’t you think?
To your health/à votre santé!