As part of my studies in French, I spent my third year living in France and working as a teaching assistant. Not only did my year living in the beautiful city of Nantes greatly improve my French and give me a deeper understanding of French culture—it completely changed my relationship with food.

Allow me to give you a little background info. Before my year abroad, I had developed an unhealthy relationship with food and exercising. I was eating too little and exercising too much, and constantly worrying about what I was eating and skipping social occasions and classes so that I had time to work out.

By controlling my eating, my eating ended up controlling me.

This is sadly becoming an increasingly common experience for our generation. Whether it be social and academic pressures, an unhealthy exposure to social media, or just a nationally poor approach to diet and exercise, too many of us aren’t looking after ourselves properly.

Living in France gave me the chance to address the way I was eating. Knowing absolutely no one, and I mean no one, when I moved to Nantes, meant I felt less pressure to keep up the obsessive, stick-thin, me that I was convinced everyone expected me to be, and relax into the flow of French culture.

Food is something of national importance to the French. They are fiercely proud of their gastronomic reputation, which means they give food the respect that we often do not. The French enjoy a diet high in fat, with cheese, cured meats and pastries all consumed on a fairly regular basis—not to mention their shame-free enjoyment of a large glass of wine. The crazy part about this is that the French tend to have a lower rate of obesity and related diseases, despite their seemingly indulgent lifestyle, a phenomenon referred to as the French Paradox

I'm not going to get into what caused my problems with food, my consequent mental state, and the battle I went through to pull myself out of it, although these are things I could pretty much write a book about (hey, maybe one day I will). Instead, I'm going to focus on the aspects of French culture and the lifestyle I adopted when living there that helped me make my way out of the deep dark hole that was my eating disorder.

1. No restriction

In Britain and the US too many of us, women especially, restrict what we eat, and deny ourselves many of our favourite foods as they are deemed too fattening. This restriction can often lead to completely 'overdoing it' when we do allow ourselves a treat, often resulting in feelings of guilt.

In France, this is much less the case. French women do not deny themselves simple pleasures nearly as much as we do. By 'indulging' in a pastry, a slice of cake, or a glass of wine when they so desire, they don't build up intense cravings and then eat half a cake/drink the whole bottle. This moderation is a much healthier approach to food and really reminded me that one pastry or cake isn't going to make you pile on weight, just like one salad won't suddenly make you healthy.

2. Meals as a social occasion

Food is such an important part of French family life. I was lucky to grow up in a household where we all ate dinner around the table together every night. However, for many students, we end up treating food as something to wolf down between classes to power us through our next essay, as opposed to taking a break, appreciating the food we eat and sharing this moment with others.

3. Taking the time to enjoy food

Very closely linked to my previous point is the time the French give to their food. The school I worked in took an hour and a half for their lunch break, and the teachers and students couldn't believe we don't take the same amount of time out of our day to break bread with others. You would rarely catch anyone tucking into a packaged sandwich whilst sitting at their desk.

As frustrating as it sometimes was, there was something beautiful about the way many shops and businesses closed for a (fairly long) lunch break. During this time, local restaurants and cafés were home to a whole range of people taking the time to enjoy what was often a three-course lunch, complete with a glass of wine, of course.

4. Bread

As someone with an eating disorder, bread, along with other white carbs, was pretty much my worst fear. In France, I ate bread every day. And guess what—I didn't morph into a beluga whale, as my disordered mind had convinced me I would.

5. Limited exercise

I joined a gym in France. This gym, however, had no treadmills, the average age of a member was definitely well over 50, and it was closed on Sundays. The fact that I physically could not go to the gym every day, as I had been, showed me how unnecessary that amount of intense exercise was. In contrast to our 24-hour gyms, this gym opened late, closed early, and seemed more like a place to go to meet other people at a Zumba class than a sweaty room filled with young women punishing their bodies.

I'm not going to pretend that France magically snapped me out of all my disordered habits. I, like the majority of those who have had an experience of disordered eating, still struggle at times. Now, whenever I sense those thoughts creeping up on me, I remind myself of the way I was in France.

I'm not trying to say that I have become a master of mindfulness and moderation, but living in France reminded me of the joy, instead of angst and pain, that food can bring to life. It is ok—in fact—it's great to love food.