Food, Drink, and Decadence: How the French stay thin

Ed. Note: This is a reprint (with a few changes) of an article I wrote a while back as a guest post for the guys at GetFitSlowly – Mac and J.D. are some of my principle inspirations for writing about this process, and their site is highly recommended. I’ve had several requests to repost the article here, so I am doing so today. If you enjoy it, please give it a vote via your social networking tool of choice, such as Digg or StumbleUpon. Thanks. Oh, and if you’re new here, welcome to Almost Fit. Please leave a comment and introduce yourself.

paris tartsWhen it comes to food, exercise, and our obsession with obesity, the French appear to break all of the rules of Western thought. By and large those who live a traditional French lifestyle eat for pleasure and satisfaction, they often smoke (arguably a stereotype), and they drink regularly. Despite a diet proportionally high in things like saturated fats, the French have remarkably low rates of heart disease and obesity. Welcome to the French Paradox.

On a visit to Paris with my wife and our 7-month old son, I experienced this firsthand. When you walk the streets of Paris, you are tempted with the most sensual culinary delights imaginable: Delicately handmade pastries, beautiful chocolates, freshly baked bread from ovens that have been used for sometimes hundreds of years, full fat, unpasteurized cheeses, and fresh crepes. And that’s just what you can see in the window displays. When you see overweight people in Paris, they are almost never Parisians; in fact, in my experience it was the easiest way to identify my fellow Americans!

Those who practice a traditional French lifestyle seem to break our most commonly accepted dietary notions. They typically:

  • Consume 60% more saturated fats than we do in proportion to our overall intake, primarily through dairy. This includes rich cheeses, real butter, whole milk, and yogurt.
  • Do not eat low fat products or use or chemically derived sugar substitutes.
  • Eat fresh bread daily that is made from refined white flour.
  • Regularly consume both lean and fatty meats including pork, duck, beef, chicken, and a few others (someone hide Mr. Ed), as well as fish.
  • Drink alcohol with lunch and dinner, and the alcohol is often unregulated. Meaning, where we have a soda fountain, they may have a cask of wine available for refills.
  • Smoke cigarettes. As I mentioned earlier, this is a bit of a stereotype since the French typically smoke less than several other European countries, and only a few percentage points more than Americans, on whole. That said, we found in Paris that the smell of cigarette smoke was abundant, yet for some reason we didn’t mind (neither of us are smokers).
  • Eat late at night, much later than we do – Often eating heavier foods for supper at around 9 or 10, followed by a dessert course.
  • Do not go to the gym or exercise much more than we do (the reasoning being why waste your life in such a way, when you could be enjoying it?).
  • Do not obsess about the chemical composition of the foods they eat, and they do not rely on science and industry to tell them what is good or bad. That is what Mother is for.

With all of this dietary rule-breaking, the French simply should be dying off like flies from heart disease. I mean after all, high fat foods? Simple carbohydrates and sugar-filled deserts? Cigarettes and alcohol? No Stairmaster for 3 hours a day? According to our experience, our industrial and governmental science, and our gigantic devotion to every miracle-cure product and approach we can turn our eyes to, their collective hearts should all be congealed, seized up like French-made Peugeot diesel motors full of hardened, varnished sludge.

almostfit parisian stewThe truth is that the French typically live 3 years longer than we do, with only an 8.3% rate of heart disease, and a low occurrence of obesity (though sadly this is increasing as Western ways infiltrate French daily life).

So how do they do it?

According to folks like Dr. Will Clower, Michael Pollan, and Mirielle Guiliano (and place me squarely in this camp, by personal experience), it comes down to this: The French simply eat real food in moderation. They eat good food, just less of it (they eat until they’re full, and then they stop). They generally don’t eat the overly-processed, low fat, low carb, hydrogenated chemically substituted well-preserved food-based products that we do. Dr. Clower’s catchphrase: “If it’s not food, don’t eat it.” Michael Pollan? “Eat food. Not Too Much. Mostly plants.”

How to eat rich foods and not gain weight

almost fit coffee and croissantHow can you implement the French approach? What do the French do that allows them to eat what they want, when they want, and still not gain weight?

Here is a list based primarily on the writings of the three authors cited above. Of course, their books provide much more detail on the scientific (and anecdotal) evidence that supports the effectiveness of these ideas, and provide specific techniques on how to implement them. Here’s a sample of the guidance they provide:

  • Identify honestly what you eat, think about it, and make changes very slightly and gradually. Remember that you are changing these dietary habits for the span of a lifetime, so they have to be simple, livable adjustments. From Mireille Guiliano, “The answer to weight gain is never dieting.”
  • Eat only real food, not processed food alternatives, “faux foods”, or food-like products (particularly high fructose corn syrup).The good news is this means you get to eat butter, bread, and chocolate again.
  • Eat for the pleasure of eating, rather than as a means of fuel. Treat your mouth more like a sensory tool and less like a Flux Capacitor.
  • Eat at regular times. In France, they maintain a social stigma against between meal snacking. In fact, many of their cars do not have cupholders.
  • Eat seasonally, locally, and shop several times a week. And as Michael Pollan says, don’t buy your fuel at the same place you buy it for your car.
  • Don’t rely solely on “Nutritionism” to tell you what is good for you; use common sense, and eat real foods. If Great-Grandma wouldn’t recognize it, don’t eat it. This is a simplification here; read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan for a much deeper explanation of the dangers of relying on science and industry alone to tell us what we should eat.
  • Your dietary emphasis should be on green leafy vegetables, or animals who are fed those vegetables.
  • Eat fat! Just the right kinds, particularly dairy and naturally occurring fats in plants (think avocados not corn oil). In fact, the lack of fat intake may actually be one of the root causes of many of our health problems like heart disease and diabetes.
  • Quantity does not equal quality. Buy the best you can afford, and be willing to spend a little more (although I’ve found that the cost levels out when you’re eating less).
  • Train yourself to eat less by enjoying your food more, eating slower, putting less in your mouth per bite, and eating for sensory pleasure. Realize that portion size has grown 3 times what it was 50 years ago!
  • Don’t eat mindlessly or be distracted when you’re eating by things like television or the computer.
  • Incorporate wine into your diet in moderation.
  • Don’t stuff yourself. Learn the often forgotten feeling of fullness with practice and patience. For example, eat half of what you normally would, and wait for half an hour. If you’re starving, you know it wasn’t enough. If you feel physically good, that is the feeling of being full. Practice identifying that feeling, and it becomes second nature with time.
  • Try to get all of your nutritional needs met through whole foods rather than supplements whenever possible (there is an ongoing, raging controversy as to whether supplements actually have much benefit out of the context of the whole food from which they were derived. [Update: After reading further, personally I believe that they DO have benefit, but only the right kinds. Industrially produced, synthetic supplements are not only worthless nutrition-wise, they can be dangerous. Whole food multivitamins, on the other hand, are a proven source of nutrition. For the “real” thing, and to gain a better understanding of the issues involved, see Robin’s blog, Whole Food and More.]).
  • Learn to cook, and make time to do it. We often say that we don’t have time to cook, but in reality in the last 15 years most of us have somehow made 2-3 hours time for other things like surfing the Internet. It is ultimately a matter of choosing our health as a priority.
  • Make ethical choices in what you eat. Develop a relationship with what you put in your body, understand how it affects you, and recognize that your choices impact the environment. This is an interpolation of the French diet in a sense since it is not a conscious concern of theirs, generally, but in a world of genetically modified foods and questionable shortsighted farming practices, it helps you to identify “real food.” The French concept of the Terroir reflects a profound respect for the land that provides the good things in life – it is a principle that helps when trying to make wise choices.
  • Don’t view your weight or your choices as a pass/fail situation. View it as a commitment to improving your life over the long haul.

All of these steps, for me, boil down to this: Eating real food in moderation simply works. It may very well be the solution to the French Paradox.