French paradox: Why do so few French women get fat?
By: Holly R. Layer
*Note: this post was originally published on the Refresh blog in August 2015 (link above). The below text was recently re-published in print in the East Aurora Advertiser on May 19, 2016.
In honor of my upcoming trip to France, I wanted to revisit the subject of the ‘French Paradox,’ this seemingly mysterious phenomenon that occurs across the pond that allows European beauties to remain slender despite a steady of diet of butter-laced pastries, flaky croissants and wine (and more wine).
My book club recently read one such book, appropriately entitled ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’ by Mireille Guiliano, a French native who spent a semester studying abroad in the US as a teenager and brought back an extra 20 pounds along with her souvenirs upon returning home.
I read the book – part memoir, part diet book, part cookbook – cover to cover and embraced every word. Guiliano approached the subject just as you’d expect any proper French woman would – with class and poise and just a dash of humility (remember, she was once in our fat American shoes, too). Just reading the book caused me to slow down, take every word in and actually THINK about the rationale. There was no formula to ‘get thin quick’ (unless you count her recipe for ‘magical leek soup’), there was no skipping to the ‘diet part.’ Instead, she simply explained what French women do, and what they don’t.
The ‘French Paradox’ is alive and well, but only because the French (and other Europeans) embrace certain norms we Americans have lost – or perhaps never really had – in our constant rat race to the top. (I realize these are gross generalizations – there are certainly obese French women just as there are slender Americans who eschew our fast-paced culture – but stereotypes stem from a grain of truth and this is no different.)
In short (because this is already getting long-winded), Guiliano writes about the French culture and how it applies to food, and really, life. Our societal differences really do contribute to the size of our waistlines. The French get great pleasure from their food (and wine), but it doesn’t lead to widespread obesity. Why? They approach life in a totally different way; instead of racing around every day trying to do and ‘have it all,’ they tend to enjoy life each day, as it comes. We rush all day long, driving to and from, working, teaching, parenting, chauffeuring, throwing dinner on the table only to repeat it all the next day. The French embrace the journey – the walk to work or school, the food they eat, the activities they find enjoyable. Again, generalizations, but stay with me.
Here are some differences, according to Guiliano, between the French and American culture, that contribute to the differences in our dress size:
-French women walk more
-French women drink more water
-French women eat fresh, seasonal food
-French women eat smaller (but better) meals
-French women eat sitting down, not standing up or while driving
-French women enjoy their food
-French women ‘compensate’ when they splurge on a treat
-French women eat slower and enjoy their meals
-French women eat their bigger meal at lunch and a smaller one at dinner
Quite simply, French women don’t get fat because they don’t overeat. We’re a nation of overeaters for myriad reasons – mindless eating, emotional eating, eating out of boredom or too fast – and the French do not. They tend to enjoy fresher, local food prepared simply and eaten slowly. While their culture embraces bread and wine, these two American diet taboos don’t make French people fat because they don’t overindulge. Everything in moderation.
Guiliano approaches weight loss in the book as a three-month ‘recalibration’ process, during which she recommends writing down your daily intake (even easier these days with smartphone apps) and then identifying what needs to change in your diet to lose weight. She credits ‘ Dr. Miracle,’ her childhood pediatrician, for helping her address her own weight gain through these methods. For Guiliano, that meant taking another route to university upon returning to Paris in order to avoid the countless bakeries with their sweet smells. Despite being French, she had picked up some indulgent taste buds while in America and continued her over-indulging after returning home.
With a three-month ‘recalibration’ period, this is no ‘quick fix’ book. It is, however, an enjoyable read that may in fact help readers identify areas of their own lives that need some ‘recalibration.’ For me, it was a gentle reminder to eat more slowly, enjoy my food, and only indulge in worthwhile splurges (like a really good piece of cake) and pass on only so-so treats (a store-bought cookie or a second slice of bread at dinner).
Having traveled abroad a few times over the years, I can say with absolute certainty that the assertions Guiliano makes are true. Sure, there are some round French women just as there are slender Americans, but the cultural nuances are accurate.
Want to be thin like the French? It’s simple: eat to live, don’t live to eat.
Holly R. Layer is a Registered Dietitian and a freelance writer. She also provides nutritional counseling at Weigel Health Center at Buffalo State College and teaches fitness classes at the Southtowns YMCA. She lives in the village with her husband, Andrew, an East Aurora native. She enjoys working out, reading, baking and talking about anything food-related. She blogs at www.thehealthypineapple.com and her work appears monthly in the Refresh Buffalo Blog. Questions to Holly can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.