We all know the stereotype—French people, especially women, are thin and beautiful. Arriving for study abroad in Paris, the perfect silhouettes and faces around me were no surprise, but after a few days of dining in the city, I started to wonder. Coming from a country where more than two thirds of adults are overweight or obese, I’m pretty aware of health and nutrition trends, and right off the bat, something seemed off in France. How did Parisians down at least a baguette a day, seem to drink wine like water, and eat a variety of rich and fatty foods, all while maintaining the stereotype of being some of the thinnest people in the world?
After a few weeks in Paris, however, what originally shocked me actually started lot make a lot of sense. While the French diet might initially seem like an alcohol-filled, high carb nightmare, it’s actually quite the opposite. A combination of culture, history, and simple eating habits, I’ve found, are responsible for this huge (or in the French case, not huge at all) difference. I fully intend to take this knowledge and some French eating habits back to the U.S. with me in an attempt to generally better my eating habits. So what do the French do so differently? Here are a few things I’ve noticed:
The French baguette:
At first, I’m not going to lie, I was very skeptical the sheer amount of carbs that the French consume in the form of baguettes every day. How could that possibly be healthy? And wasn’t white bread basically your waistline’s nightmare?
Well, French baguettes, it turns out, are certainly nothing like white bread as we know it. Bread baking is ingrained into French history and there’s an actual law in France that requires all baguettes to be made in the same healthy, natural way. The ingredients are simple: wheat flour, water, yeast and salt. That’s it. No sketchy long list of ingredients like you’ll find on American bread. So even if the French are taking in a few more grams of carbs, they’re certainly not bad for you.
Wine over hard alcohol:
It’s no secret that the French like to drink. Wine is typically served with most meals, but unlike in the U.S., hard alcohol is not so ingrained in the culture, and really not as common. Sure, you can find your typical rum or vodka just about anywhere, but when the French drink, it’s often a casual glass of wine with a meal, not the crazy night out that you might be imagining.
A lack of processed or artificial food:
There are a lot of strange foods you can find in France, but there are certainly some you can’t: Splenda, butter substitutes, and an excess of snacks with artificial additives, for example. Rather than throwing a few packets of Splenda and fat-free, flavored creamer into their coffee every morning, the French seem to prefer small indulgences of the real thing. A little heavy cream or a pack of sugar there certainly won’t hurt you, and leaving out these artificial substitutes that many Americans use daily is a good habit to pick up.
Healthy fats in small portions:
Sure, a lot of the foods that are typically considered French are higher in fat than many Americans would be comfortable with. The French don’t tend to stray away from whole milk, heavy cheeses, or full fat yogurt, which was a surprising change coming from the “low-fat” and “fat-free” culture in the U.S. What many Americans don’t realize, however, is that these types of healthy fats are actually good for you and an essential part of the diet, especially when consumed in small portions, like the French, and especially Parisians, tend to.
The food culture:
Though this reason has nothing to do with French foods themselves, it’s actually one of the most noticeable as an American living in Paris, and in my opinion, one of the most important for us to pick up on.
As Businessweek pointed out, Americans as a whole have an obsession with food and use it as “just another form of therapy.” The obsession with calories, macronutrients and ingredients that is common in the U.S. does not exist in France: they simply eat fairly healthy, natural foods in general. They consider a meal an experience and serving and eating food to be an important event of the day; the eat slowly and leisurely, unlike Americans, who typically scarf down meals and dash off to the next activity.
If Americans were a little less obsessed with what exactly they were eating, and instead focused on the meal itself and enjoying healthy good, it would take us a long way. And hey, the ridiculous amount of walking that the French, especially Parisians, do every day couldn’t hurt either.