A French woman sipping a coffee at a cafe
French Health Lifestyle

Why are the French people so thin?

As I mention it in my article “French paradox 2019: myth or reality?”, I’m French/Italian and my entire life people have asked why I were so skinny even after having 4 kids? There is no magic formula and it is not because I am French, that I am thin. I’ve never been on a diet but I’ve always taken care of myself and been aware of good healthy eating habits. However, for instance, it is true that French people are thinner than Americans in general. I’ve lived in the US and I did notice a lot more obese people over there. So why are the French so thin when they eat a lot of saturate fatty foods? It is well-known that the French eat a lot of bread, salami, cheese, buttery sauces and pastries. If it isn’t for drinking a lot of the red wine, what are their secrets? Let’s give a closer look at their lifestyle habits in order to get the whole picture.

The French diet: quality vs. quantity

A loaf of bread being sliced

  • “L’art de la table”

To the French, food is sacrosanct! French cuisine has been declared a “world intangible heritage” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“L’art de la table”, a French term meaning “the art of entertaining, preparing and presenting food”, originated in the middle ages. This is how old this heritage is! The French gastronomy was born in the 17th century under Louis XIV’s reign.

Gastronomy” is the study of the relationship between food and culture, the art of preparing and serving rich or delicate and appetizing food, the cooking styles of particular regions, and the science of good eating.”

  • Home cooking

To this day, French people cherish their traditional food heritage and they consume food for pleasure. Their favorite place to eat is at home. They enjoy preparing the meals for their friends or family. They enjoy setting up the table and pay attention to the details and the presentation.

In the US, when I was invited to eat, I was brought to the restaurant.

  • Small portion

The French prefer the quality to the quantity. Less is more and better. They eat smaller portions. When I lived in the US, at first I thought that buffet restaurants were awesome! You really get a lot for your money. But is the food quality there? NO! On top of that, Buffets encourage binge eating.

Magic Bullet Blender
French diet- magic blender
  • Quality

To the French, the freshness of products is very important. So they’d rather spend more money on quality fresh vegetables and meats rather than prepared foods. The variety and choices of meat is impressive! When you go to buy a chicken, you have a hard time choosing one. You have the farmers’ chicken, the “label rouge” chicken etc… There are different types of labels classifying where, what and how the chicken was raised and fed. The customer is well-informed and the quality of the product is guaranteed. It is like that for almost every food products: dairy, vegetables, eggs, grains.

Organic businesses are flourishing because the French have always been attentive to the quality.

  • Less refined and fortified food

Because freshness and quality are relevant features, you see less refined and fortified foods. These type of foods are becoming very unpopular. France even bans GMO crops. Iron and synthetic vitamins added to foods increase insulin resistance and oxidation. They can cause diabetes if their intake is excessive.

  • Healthy snacks

The French are fond of dairy products such as yogurts. It makes a healthy snack. When you go to the supermarket, you notice that yogurts and dairy products such as cheese take up entire aisles. Snack foods like cookies, chips, candy, chocolate bars and sodas take less shelf space. Even water takes more space!

  • Food variety

Despite the fact that French consume a variety of food rich in saturated fats, its diversity provides a wide range of different nutrients that should be consumed to maintain a healthy diet and decrease the risk of disease. Without even trying, they maintain a balanced healthy diet, eating foods from the 5 food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains, protein and dairy), fulfilling one’s all nutritional’s needs.

How the French stay slim? Their “art de vivre” lifestyle

A street with cafes in France

If you’ve ever been to France, you’ve probably noticed all the people eating or simply sipping their drinks outside in the many cafés downtown. “L’art de vivre” is another French concept translating “the art of living”.

  • Time is valuable

In the US, we eat our meals in a hurry. In fact, we only get a 30 minutes break from work. In France, we get 1 to 1h30 minutes of lunch break. We take our time to savor our meals and socialize. Meals are a social pastime.

  • Regularity

One other healthy habit is that we eat 3 times a day at regular intervals. We avoid consuming food sitting in front of the TV and tend to eat slowly. We enjoy our surroundings with our family or friends. Discussing and exchanging about various topics.

  • Let’s take a walk

When I lived in the US, I had to drive everywhere because of the long distances; I had to take the car to go to my bank, the post office, work. In France, businesses such as a bank is close enough to walk to it. There is a post office, a bakery, a convenient store in all the towns and it’s all in walking distance.

Gravity Defyer Proven Pain Relief Women’s G-Defy Mighty Walk

French healthy lifestyle-walking shoes
Sadly in the US, we even stay in our car to get our mail…

Northern France vs. Southern France

A bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and tomatoes

One major difference between the north and the south is in the use of butter. Indeed, in the south which borders the Mediterranean sea, we cook more with olive oil than butter. We talk about the Mediterranean diet which is rich in fresh vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, fruit, beans and olive oil.

As I mentioned earlier, I was raised French/Italian. My mom’s parents immigrated from Southern Italy to Northern France. At home, I would eat mostly Italian. Sometimes my mom cooked French recipes. I would eat French at school, at friends’ and restaurants. My parents’ cooking was Mediterranean. I ate a lot of fresh greens and fruit both at lunch and dinner. The main dishes were prepared with extra-virgin olive oil. We consumed beans based dishes twice a week as well as fish.

Provence: Recipes from the French Mediterranean

French diet-mediterranean cookbook

I realize how lucky I was to have been brought up in 2 different rich cultures. I was brought up eating baguette, butter and jam for breakfast and pasta with healthy tomato sauce at lunchtime! Without even knowing it nor trying it, I ate a balanced healthy diet my entire life!

Less stress

A grey cat is stretching its legs

The French “Art de vivre” is an antidote for stress. Eating a balanced diet, walking regularly, enjoying food and taking time to socialize, all these healthy habits help regulate the cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone released by the brain to control the blood sugar levels in order to deal with stressful situations. If its levels are too high, it can cause weight gain, sleep disorder, high blood pressure, moodiness, diabetes and reduce your metabolism.

Conclusion

Food is sacred in France but so it is in Italy, Spain and most European countries. For instance, in Italy, shops even shut down at lunchtime for long hours and people go home to take naps! Thanks to their traditional cultural heritage, the French stay slim without even worrying about it nor depriving themselves of food.

Nevertheless, France is now fighting against obesity which is a growing health issue due to a more sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy snacks, more prepared foods and fast foods. The French government took preventive actions: it banned snacks and sodas vending machines in public schools, it taxed food companies that don’t encourage good eating habits, stopping TV and food printing ads promoting unhealthy products.

I am curious to know your thoughts about the subject and if you any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask leaving a comment below.

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14 Comments

  1. Jessie says:

    This is a great post!  You know, for me it was very thought provoking too!  The reason being, I never really thought about French food a lot, and I realize now how much of a mistake that was after reading this post!  I have a friend who was stationed in France, and he said that blood sausage is popular there.  Is that true? 

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Yes it is true that blood sausage is popular. I don’t like it but my parents didn’t cook it either. Thank you!!

  2. I loved your article and was impressed with the video as well. Maybe I should move to France it seems as though there eating habits are much better. Thanks for the great read and information.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      You’re very welcome! Thanks!

  3. I enjoyed reading the article. The video was interesting. The part about the US fortifying foods was not new to me, but that other countries do not do this was an eye opener. The science behind these fortifications and how it affects the body was disturbing. I will personally take a better look in to making better food choices. I visited Thailand last year there are hardly any processed foods there either. Most of the people in SE Asia are thin. Thank you for the information

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      It is disturbing, I agree!! I am glad it made you more conscious. Asian diet is another good example. Thank you!

  4. Enrique says:

    Hi, Anne,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. What you say is so true. Lifestyle in the U.S. is so different from life in other countries.
    I have many French friends and they’re all so skinny! I always attributed this to their drinking red wine instead of soda. However, at the same time I wondered how it was possible if they eat too much bread lol.
    About portions, you reminded me of my French teacher who was amazed by the enormous portions he got served at any American restaurant. Well, basically everybody says the same thing. But that’s normal in the U.S.
    I really like those concepts of l’art de la table and l’art de vivre. We need to take everything more slowly. We’re stressed all the time and don’t enjoy life as we should.

    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading more from you.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      I was shocked when I lived in the US to see so much binge eating and such large portions. Then I got used to it and I even gained weight!! When I realized, I made the decision to be more careful and stop overeating. Americans are just used to eat and don’t realize. However, I see a change and more actions are taken to inform the population and stop obesity. Thank you for your commment!

  5. Good information provided.?

  6. Wilson says:

    Yeah there are so much smaller portions in France! I almost starved when I went there! I’m also 6’6 and 230 Lbs so I have to eat more than most other people.
    I did notice the lifestyle was much more healthy there than in the US other than many more people smoke in France than the US. That probably has an impact on the smaller apatite as well.

  7. Strahinja says:

    Yes, everyone that saw a Frechman or woman says the same thing. There is something about their eating habits. I noticed in one hotel a French family was eating a table next to mine. Their portions are really small, they enjoy one slice of bread, and a main course and they always love to top it off with the glass of wine.

    There is something about them that makes them slimmy and maybe some genetics can be included in the story as well.

  8. Kate says:

    Wow, I am impressed. I thought French People were thin mostly because of their DNA characteristics. I had no idea that they follow such a healthy diet. It is so amazing that the government took measures against obesity. This way people will not have the option of snacking on unhealthy snacks and opt for healthier choices. Thank you for this post, it was very informative!

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Thank you!!

  9. Hello Anne-Caroline!
    Thanks for exposing us the French art-de-vivre, while also presenting the differences between their lifestyle and the rhytym of life from the States! As we see there are a lot of pros for the French and red flags for America :). The fact that the officially longest living person in the modern history was Jeanne Calment (122 years, 164 days) was NOT an accident, that’s for sure.

    Not even Japanese women are able to get that far, in spite of being slim and having their own, true art of eating too – they are stuck at 116-117!
    Thanks for telling us these facts that also help us know better about two different and meaningful cultures (French and American).

    Best regards,
    Peter

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