The French paradox is a well-known and much discussed puzzle among American media. How is it that the French enjoy baguettes, croissants, wine, cheese and chocolate and yet manage to stay slim?
This is a complex question, but here are some basic elements of the French approach to eating and living that allows them to have their croissants while keeping their waistlines trim:
- Portion Control. If you’ve ever been to a true French restaurant, you might have been disappointed by the tiny bit of food on your $25+ plate. This isn’t an accident or the French trying to dupe you out of your money – it’s simply the portion sizes they’re used to. Forget the giant bowl of Doritos – the French would rather have a smaller portion of high-quality food.
- Savor and Enjoy Your Food. This one is harder to define, because you could argue that American
s enjoy our food, too. I mean, we enjoy food so much that we sometimes can’t stop eating it, and what says enjoyment more than gluttony, right? Wrong. The French traditionally sit down to savor three leisurely meals each day, and they don’t equate enjoyment with over-consumption. In other words, you don’t need to prove your love of Doritos by eating the entire bowl.
- Eat Fresh, Eat Local. French food is, as a rule, less processed than American foods. The French enjoy produce that is grown locally, and more importantly, in season. That’s why we eat foods like squashes and sweet potatoes during the winter and blueberries during the summer. Thanks to advances in modern food production, we can eat most of these foods year-round, but they are at their best only during certain season. The French also eschew things like frozen meals in favor of fresh-baked or cooked foods, which don’t have all of the added preservatives.
- Drink Wine (in moderation). My favorite part of the French diet by far. Enjoying a glass or two of wine with dinner (or even lunch), is perfectly acceptable and encouraged in France. However, this isn’t an excuse to binge, as the French take the same view of portion control when it comes to wine as they do to food.
- Enjoy Exercise. It’s true that the French lifestyle does have a lot of built-in walking, but the French attitude toward exercise is the same as their attitude toward food and wine – enjoy, in moderation. So for us that translates into finding something that you enjoy doing, and don’t go to extremes with it.
Use tableware whenever possible. This might seem like a strange goal, but it really does work to help you determine whether you’re really as hungry as you think you are, plus it helps you appreciate your food when you do decide to eat. Tableware is key in helping to moderate snacking and overeating, as it creates a natural barrier between your food and your mouth. Use the barrier – think of it as an advantageous tool rather than burden.
- Balance your meals throughout the day. Balancing your meals simply implies that you should find an equilibrium between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Experiment to figure out when you prefer to eat your larger meal of the day, and balance the other meals accordingly. I prefer for lunch to be my largest meal of the day, so I’ll eat a light dinner and breakfast to even the scales out. If you like to eat a large dinner, make sure that your breakfast and lunch are lighter affairs.
- Eat plenty of produce. More indulgent French foods like bread, cheese and meats, but should always be rounded out with a serving or two of produce. I aim for at least half of my meal to consist of vegetables or fruits, and ideally ones that are in season. These fiber-rich foods will go a long way in keeping you full and providing the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
- Leave food on your plate. Remember all those times your mom told you to finish your dinner? Throw those instructions out the window. To learn how to eat according to your hunger level, you have to forget that obligation to finish everything on your plate. Eat according to how you feel, not what your eyes tell you. If you don’t like wasting food, save the leftovers and use them another time.
- Get enough sleep. Being well-rested truly does go a long way when it comes to weight maintenance, and yet sleep is often the least of our priorities when we have a busy day or week. Aim to get enough sleep that you feel well-rested and alert – for most people that’s about 7-9 hours.
As you may have noticed, I used the word ‘enjoy’ many times with reference to the French lifestyle, but never ‘diet.’ The overall themes of this lifestyle are enjoyment and indulgence, within reason, which doesn’t leave much room for dieting. It’s contrary to our usual thinking when it comes to weight loss – namely that pain is gain and deprivation is the only way.
But the challenge here isn’t in identifying why the French stay so slender, it’s in the how, or in the implementation of these basics. So starting in July 2013, I’m kicking off my resolution to live and eat like a French person for a few months to see if these really work, and if it’s possible to live like this in America. Granted, this might be a little easier for me as a resident of New York City, but I’ll try to include any tips or tricks for non-urban dwellers as well.
So follow along as I share what I learn from living like a French person. C’est parti!