How To Eat, Drink, and Be Merry like the French: Diet Culture in France Versus the U.S.
French women are stereotyped as these long-legged, smooth-tressed models with a pack of cigarettes in their little black purses. They indulge in pain au chocolat for breakfast, finish off both lunch and dinner with a hunk of brie cheese and some baguette, and manage a chocolate soufflé for dessert while still squeezing into the jeans they've been wearing since high school. Ever since I moved to France I’ve been curious about this image of French women. I wondered if these conflicting stereotypes we have of both the indulgent french cuisine and the Brigitte Bardot's of the world could possibly co-exist together. And after almost a year here I'm just starting to understand how they do it.
Let me just make a quick caveat and say that I don't think thinness is always a mark of health or beauty. The French girl I'm emulating here isn't the one skipping lunch and then having a cigarette and a glass of red wine for dinner to stay a size two, but rather the one who manages to stay her body's healthy, ideal weight without diets, binging, avoiding food groups and stressing about missing a workout. I want to show how healthy, beautiful French women can be almost everywhere in this cigarette-smoking (though I would avoid this one), baguette-eating, gym-uncommitted country.
On average the French actually live almost 4 years longer than Americans do with the French reaching 82.4 years old and Americans just 78.6 years old. The French also have an obesity rate of just 15.8% while that of the United States sits at 38.4%.
So lets see how les bâtards can have their cake and eat it too.
More people are coming to the realization that diets don’t work. If diets worked there would be less and less people dieting, but the diet and wellness industry are growing every year. If diets worked it wouldn't be true that 95% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back in 1-5 years.
The French have always known this. I did some research and found that in the past year Americans googled the term “diet” two to three times more than the French googled “régime,” peaking at four times higher the week of December 30 to January 5. Yep, every new year there are thousands more Americans sitting down to google the newest diet that probably won’t work.
So what does work? Well, if we look at the French they're eating every meal sitting down at the table, eating slowly perhaps chatting to family and coworkers between bites. They don’t eat five chocolate croissants in one sitting because they know if they want another one later than can have one. By not restricting themselves they don’t feel inclined to binge. They don't think carbs are bad for you or fat or even sugar so instead of cutting food groups out of their diet they eat the less healthy options in moderation and when they want a treat.
They also eat rich. Crisp baguette topped with gooey Brie, pasta covered in butter, fondue. You would think this would lead to weight gain, but not if you eat the right portion. Their food is so rich you tend to feel satiated after just a small amount of food.
So think: Intuitive eating, enjoying every bite of your meal, not restricting yourselves to certain foods, making a meal a social event, and HAES principles.
Going off the last point, enjoy every bite. The French aren’t watching TV while they’re eating dinner, they’re not scarfing down their breakfast/lunch/dinner in their car on the way to work/pick up their kids from school/heading to the gym. They’re telling their bodies they are eating and they’re slowing down to make the experience more enjoyable, and more memorable. They also leave room in their diet for unhealthy eating because they appreciate the satisfaction and pleasure it brings.
This is something that really surprised me when I moved to France. They are so committed to slowing down and enjoying themselves when they eat. This is such a little thing, but it really made a difference for me. Not only does slowing down when you eat make you enjoy the meal more, but it makes it lasts longer. Twenty minute dinners turned into hour long events. Even before a road trip one of my French friends preferred going to the bakery to get sandwiches and bringing them home to eat rather than eating them in the car even though we were running late. This also turns eating into a social event which is also really important for mental health. So turn food into a time to slow down and spend with people you love!
Rock What You Got
The thing that I really think makes the French so beautiful is that they rock what they got. If they have a curvy waist they wear a high-waisted, tight-fitted pair of jeans, if they have big lips they use red lipstick, if they have pretty hair they show it off. They also are always put together. You’ll rarely see anyone in France in workout clothes except at the gym and you certainly won’t see anyone in pajamas at the grocery store or sweatpants at a breakfast spot after a night out. While I do appreciate the lack of judgment in the US, it is true that you feel better when you’re put together. I’m not saying you have to wear make-up and do your hair every day to feel beautiful, but to make a little more effort sometimes to do what makes you feel beautiful can make a big difference.
Enjoy Meals Unprocessed, Fresh, and Served with Veggies
This is so important. When the French buy bread (for the most part) it's a baguette with four ingredients: flour, salt, water, and yeast. If you buy a cake at the grocery store in the US the ingredients are frightening, but in France it's just the ingredients you would use if you had made the cake at home. It’s the same with a lot of their products.
Because of this they're avoiding a lot of the added sugar that goes into processed foods. Americans on average eat 126g of sugar a day while the French only eat 70g. Processed sugar was never something your body was supposed to handle on it's own. While the French eat a lot of sweets they are usually not processed sweets and they also tend to choose fruit for dessert a lot of the time too. Soda is also not as common here as it is in the U.S.
The French tend to have small refrigerators because they only stock up on a few days of fresh goods and then return to the grocery store for their next few meals. While it is a bigger time commitment, the French’s commitment to meals with fresh vegetables and unprocessed food and desire for simple ingredients really makes a difference. While they may be eating pasta, rice, or bread with every meal you won't miss the serving of salad, haricots verts, or tomatoes that goes along with it and you sure won't see preservatives, dyes, or other chemicals on their dinner plate.
Be The Only Snack In The Room
The French have one snack built into their schedule of meals called le goûter. It’s between lunch and dinner and is usually between 4:30pm and 5:30pm. 99% of the time it's a sweet snack that could be anything from a coffee and a little cookie to a tartelette. Since the French have a snack built into their day they don’t snack at any other time of the day. While I tend to be someone who needs a lot of snacks throughout the day, it is nice to have a national designated snack time (the kindergartener in me really appreciates it). It also makes you think about how easy it is to add extra food to your day in the form of snacks that you might not even need.
While the French aren’t exactly gym rats they make sure to stay active. They walk around town and even bike to work if they can. I have a co-worker at my school who bikes an hour to school and back every day. I’m definitely not saying you have to go that far, but finding little ways to be active can add up. Try walking somewhere you usually drive, talking laps around your office, exchanging your coffee break for a quick walk around the block and taking the stairs.
So while you might not be able to adopt all of these habits into your lifestyle, I think Americans could use to stand somewhere in the middle of the fast-food, high-sugar, high-processed food diet and the superfood-loving, food-group-excluding, quick-fix-searching diet. If you've found a healthy lifestyle that is sustainable to work for the rest of your life, more power to you. But, you'll find me learning to love the French and their melty, chocolatey, and flaky diet culture and myself just the way I am.
Disclaimer: These are observations I've made from living with French families, eating in French high school cafeterias, conversing with French locals, reading about French food and just everyday French encounters, but I can't know everything about the French culture so if you're curious about the French diet culture go ahead and do some more research :)