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French Diet

Unraveling the Mysteries of Why the French are so Thin


Girl in a market
Vincent Besnault/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The French eat rich foods, drink lots of wine and smoke. So why are they so thin and fit? Recent news reports have touted the wonders of the so-called French diet. Just what is the secret to the French paradox?

During the time I lived in France, I ate whatever I wanted (think chocolate croissants for breakfast, tartes aux fruits rouges at night for dessert). I never dieted, and I never went to the gym. I indulged in wine. Yet I lost a significant amount of weight during that time.

Here are my theories why the French diet works.

A Reverence for Food

First and foremost, the French hold food sacred. While this immediately sounds like a recipe for weight gain, it isn't. Think about it. Instead of inhaling a burger in two minutes flat, they enjoy their food. They savor it. So what if dinner takes three hours? The French have feasts that would put an American Thanksgiving to shame on a regular basis. The French diet has very little to do with the actual word "diet."

Americans continuously diet, yet the U.S. obesity rate keeps climbing. That is because Americans are learning to hate food more and more, to see it is either something drab to suffer through or something indulgent to feel good about. Just remember to enjoy every bite.

Take it Slow Instead of Taking Out!

To enjoy your food, you must focus on it and allow time for it. In France, fast food and take out are uncommon. While the French are slowly adding take-out (called "a emporter" in French), the French as a culture set aside a time and place for food. It is much more customary to eat food sitting at a cafe or at home, minus the rush.

Size Matters

One of the biggest adjustments after returning to the States was the sheer massive size of meals here. The French may eat food that would never qualify under a Weight Watchers diet, but their portion size is much smaller. They take their time with each bite, so they are able to realize they are full after eating far less. Typical restaurant portion sizes in America in particular are astoundingly immense.

French TV Sucks

Some may disagree, but French TV is pretty awful. That can be bad, to be sure, but it has positive aspects and contributes to the French diet mystery. In America, so many households and so many days revolve around the boob tube. In France, the people instead walk to the market, and then the baker. It is so much easier to go outside and just do something there instead of rotting on the couch.

Exercise that is (ahem) fun

The French love love. According to a survey by the Durex brand of condoms, French people have more sex encounters annually than Americans. How many calories does it burn?

It's Easy to Be Active

The French are not lazy about the little things. Several times, I saw French people take the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. The little things that Americans do to make life easier add up to a huge deficit in activity. The French cities are also set up so it is easy to walk to everything.

In America, the suburbs are rife with strip malls, forcing people to drive to every stop. In fact, the French typically shop at a variety of stores (one baker with the best baguettes, a butcher shop for meat, a market for basics, and perhaps a pastry shop for desserts). While they do have big box stores (such as Carrefour), they are far less common.

Get Fresh!

During a recent trip to Chili's, I was told something I ordered would be delayed. The truck had just arrived (from who knows where), and the food was still frozen solid. My first thought was that even the smallest, mom-and-pop brasserie in France would never dream of serving up dehydrated, frozen food.

In the French diet, fresh ingredients, locally-grown produce and quality ingredients are the norm. It is not typical to eat so much processed food there.

Americanization of France

Sadly, the very French diet and culture that keeps the people of this country fit is being slowly eroded by an invasion of American culture. Starbucks is dabbling there, and McDonald's are spreading quickly. For more about the threats to the French way of life as it relates to food, I highly recommend reading, "A Goose in Toulouse," which is on my list of Top Books Set in France (see the link under Suggested Reading on the top right of the page).

The Biggest Loser

The recent hit show, "The Biggest Loser," has probably brought more attention to the obesity problem in this country. Even though this show never made a single mention of the French diet, the participants in the Biggest Loser were taught some key elements: portion control, using fresh ingredients and working activity into their daily diets.

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