As I mentioned in my article “French Paradox 2019: Myth or Reality?”, I’m French/Italian and my entire life people have asked why I was 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 saturated 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 red wine, what are their secrets? Let’s take a closer look at their lifestyle habits in order to get the whole picture.
The French diet: quality vs. quantity
- “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.
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 are 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 product: dairy, vegetables, eggs, and 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 types 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 up more space!
- Food variety
Despite the fact that the 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 needs.
How do the French stay slim? Their “art de vivre” lifestyle
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-minute 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.
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 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, and work. In France, businesses such as a bank are close enough to walk to it. There is a post office, a bakery, and a convenience store in all the towns and it’s all within walking distance.
Sadly in the US, we even stay in our car to get our mail…
Northern France vs. Southern France
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.
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 or trying it, I ate a balanced healthy diet my entire life!
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 cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone released by the brain to control 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.
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 or 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 soda vending machines in public schools, taxed food companies that don’t encourage good eating habits, and stopped TV and food printing ads promoting unhealthy products.
I am curious to know your thoughts about the subject and if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask by leaving a comment below.
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