It’s noted that the French have high intakes of fats, drink red wine, eat bread, indulge in chocolate and pastries, and cheese. It begs the question, however, why aren’t the French gaining as much weight (7% obesity) as Americans (30% obesity), or have more heart disease? Neuroscientist Will Clower, who lived in France for two years and wrote “The Fat Fallacy: The French Diet Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss,” observed that when Americans lived in France, they lost weight, and when the French lived in the United States they gained weight. This is exactly what happened to me.
Before moving to the States, I spent most of my life in Paris and traveled regularly to the USA, leaving each time 10 pounds heavier and needing more than two weeks to lose it all upon returning to France. What’s the reason? Lifestyle.
1. Red wine
Red wine contains flavonoids, which increase the health benefits for the heart and blood vessels. These antioxidants also aide in anti-aging. Does this mean people should drink wine like water? No. Drinking in moderation is key. The French drink their famous red wines at lunch, dinner, and sometimes in the afternoon at a café. True, some may drink wine in excess for other purposes than health benefits, but this is also the case in other societies.
Although Americans consume wine, they place beer first, which is also promoted more heavily through advertisement than wine is. Beer doesn’t contain any health benefits, and over consumption tends to hurt the heart and the liver.
2. Savor, don’t stuff yourself
Americans eat fast and leave a restaurant as quickly as they came in. I’ve even noticed some people gulping their food down while talking on the phone or working on their laptops. So, do Americans savor their food, or do they eat it so fast that it’s become unimportant?
“Americans are getting exactly what they want—value for their dollar, regardless of taste,” says Sheah Rarback, RD, nutritionist and professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
When you go to France, you notice that the locals savor their food, not scarf it down. Furthermore, the French spend much more time in a restaurant enjoying their food, the company they’re with, and the overall dining experience that’s never rushed.
3. Size matters
The French prefer quality over quantity. Portions are smaller, and they eat until they’re satisfied, not until they’re uncomfortably full. Naturally, there’s no need for a doggy bag, either.
French researchers teamed up with Penn State University to conduct a study on the weight of food portions in Paris and Philadelphia, and here’s what they discovered:
- The average portion size in Paris was 25% smaller than in Philadelphia (277 grams versus 346 grams).
- Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia served dishes that were 72% larger than those in Parisian Chinese restaurants.
- A candy bar in Philadelphia was 41% larger than the same candy bar in Paris.
- A soft drink was 53% larger, and a hot dog was 63% larger in Philadelphia than in France.
Do we really need these extra-sized portions?
Quoting a study on the popcorn consumption habits of movie-goers in David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating,” he writes:
“People who were given a big bucket ate an average of 53% more than those given a medium size. Give them a lot, they eat a lot.”
4. Shop till you drop
Buying food is a different experience in France than in the USA. The French do their grocery shopping for every-day consumption, preferring to go to an open-air market for fresh fruits and vegetables, a fromagerie for cheese, a boulangerie for bread, and a boucherie for meat. I used to do this every day, then walk to my apartment building and climb four flights of stairs to reach my place—shopping and exercising in the same day.
Locals also care about food being fresh, clean, hormone-free, and organic. They buy less frozen products because they don’t need to, and refrigerators are also smaller to fit in limited kitchen space.
5. An apple a day keeps the doctor away
The French diet consists of many fruits and vegetables. Grapes, apples, peaches, and figs are regularly eaten at the end of a meal, providing the fiber and nutrients needed in a balanced diet and further decreasing heart-related diseases. Americans consume a lot of produce too, but all too often are they genetically engineered, which depletes the nutritional value.
The French don’t snack like Americans either. Meals provide enough calories that render it unnecessary. When the French want a snack, they tend to eat fruit.
6. Food for thought
The labeling and the provenance of food and drink are important in French culture—locals want to know where products come from. They’re also conscious of the terroir, or characteristics, of a product, be it from the influence of the environment or agricultural methods. Therefore, the French eat far less process foods in their diet.
The distinct labeling of French products can also originate in one region alone, for example champagne. For a sparkling wine to have this label, it must be produced in a particular method in the Champagne region of France. There are also 56 French cheeses out of more than 370 types that fall under the protected designation of origin (PDO), including Roquefort from Midi-Pyrénees, Camembert from Normandy, and Beaufort from Savoie.
Mealtime at home also plays an important role in French culture. It’s a time for family to gather together and catch up on daily life. It also fosters meals that are prepared with fresh food and ingredients.
7. Fit as a fiddle
When it comes to dieting, the French don’t do much of it. The amount of food they eat at a sitting is taken in moderation. If they happen to indulge one evening, they accommodate the body with simple food the next day in order to allow the body to recover from the excess.
The French also frequent gyms, but not on the scale as many Americans do. Apart from weekend soccer games and other outdoor activities, the amount of walking the French do is enough to burn calories and stay fit. They walk everywhere they need to go, climb stairs in metro stations, and make their way by foot down long corridors to catch their connecting train—life is an exercise, and a city like Paris is a gym.
Boasting more types of bottled water than any other country, the French choose water over soft drinks. That’s not to say they don’t drink fizzy beverages; it’s just not a high amount. They consume only 52 liters of it on average annually compared to 216 liters in the United States.
French lifestyle is more than we think it is. It’s a cultural concept to live and understand.