Something bizarre happened during my recent trip to France. After indulging in what seemed like copious amounts of incredible food for a week and feeling like I would likely need to watch my diet upon coming home, I cautiously stepped on the scale and saw that I hadn’t gained an ounce. How was that possible? I felt as though I had eaten more than usual and I even gave in to foods I don’t normally eat at all like bread, wine and chocolate. Well, I wasn’t the only one. The day after I returned home, the emails from other students were flying – “I didn’t gain any weight! I can’t believe it!”
Well I’ve been thinking about my experience which relates to the so-called “French Paradox,” the idea that the French people are able to enjoy food high in saturated fat yet don’t suffer from coronary heart disease. Of course, my experience and observations are rather personal and unscientific and I haven’t taken any blood tests, but I have come to some conclusions about the French and the benefits of their way of eating, at least where I visited in the countryside. Here’s what I observed about their approach to food:
- Eating is a leisurely act. The French take their time when they eat. No one is in a rush to finish or to serve you if you are in a restaurant. Lingering over over a meal, especially lunch, is very relaxing and pleasurable. I noticed I was able to enjoy my food more and really pay attention and savor what I was eating. I can’t tell you how much more satisfied I felt eating this way. This is a lot different from how many of us eat, on the run, inhaling who-knows-what, only to be hungry an hour later.
- Lunchtime is sacred. Although I understand the French are starting to work more hours in a day, they’re aren’t messing with the 2-hour lunch. Everyone except restaurants takes lunch from 12:00 to 2:00. If you are headed to France, with the exception of large cities like Paris, do not expect to shop or run errands during this time. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to leave the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum at 11:50 am. They were closing for lunch, of course. I’m thinking if you wanted to commit a crime in France, you’d have a great chance of not getting caught since I saw many a police officer packing it up at 11:55 am. The point is that taking a nice long break from our hectic day is a very healthful way to restore our energy and enjoy your meal.
- Lunch is the biggest meal of the day. This relates to the observation above. I found it so interesting that when I ate a very large lunch over 2-3 hours, I wasn’t hungry at all the rest of the day. When dinnertime rolled around, I really only needed a small salad or cup of soup, if that. Coincidentally, Ayurveda, the Indian science of life, teaches us to consume 75% of our calories before 2:00 pm. Our digestive fire is at its peak when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, between 12:00 and 2:00. I see many busy moms skipping lunch or eating a small salad because they have no time to sit and relax, but then the snacking starts as their energy begins to dip around 2:00 pm. Then they’re eating cookies with the kids after school, needing a latte at 4:00 to keep their energy up, and then snacking while making dinner. I definitely consumed fewer calories and slept better on the days I ate a larger than normal lunch. The only tradition I won’t be able to continue at home is wine with lunch!
- Whole, full-fat foods are more satisfying. There’s no low-fat or non-fat goat cheese in France. That’s not to say that if you go into a supermarket you won’t find (American) processed foods that are low-calorie, low-fat, sugar-free, etc. But in general, the French go for the real deal and enjoy it. Omelettes are made with whole eggs, not just the whites. Cheese and dairy products are whole and unrefined, as well. High quality fats fill you up and, in my opinion, taste better and are more satisfying. You will surely be less likely to graze later.
- Just because the French are surrounded by seriously amazing food on a daily basis doesn’t mean they eat all of it….in one sitting. Yes, there are crazy delicious croissants on every corner, as well as chocolate, pastries, and rich desserts. I noticed that French people will indulge, but in much smaller portions than we do and not necessarily every day. I was thinking one day about desserts in particular and the gigantic portions we get at restaurants in the states. Some of these offerings can total more than 1,000 calories. That’s completely insane. When we did indulge in dessert in France, it was a very small, but satisfying portion.
- No eating in between meals. The French do not snack. This goes against what many of us have been taught about eating many small meals a day to prevent ravenous hunger and stabilize blood sugar levels. Everyone is different and small mini-meals may work for some people, but I know it doesn’t work well for me. I tend to consume much more food in a day if I am constantly even just a little hungry. 200 calories here, 200 hundred calories there start to add up. You won’t need snacks if you eat enough satisfying food at breakfast and lunch.
- Fresh is best. You already know this, but higher quality, fresh, unprocessed food is better for you. Period. It is more digestible and more recognizable by our bodies. Fresh food contains more nutrients which signal to our bodies that we have been nourished. No need for the body to send us signals that it needs more. Think about how obsessed Americans are with dieting and losing weight, how afraid we are of fat and carbs. While we consume more artificial, sugar-free, fat-free, processed and refined food, we just keep getting fatter and sicker.
I am really interested to hear if you have had similar or dissimilar experiences traveling to other countries and adopting their way of eating. Or perhaps you have noticed some strategies that have helped you maintain a healthy weight. Please share!