If you have ever wondered how the French stay so slim, yet are constantly eating fatty foods, delicious pastries, and drinking wine, then you have thought about what is commonly known as the French Paradox. It is a stark contrast from the overly health conscious Americans who ultimately have a much higher obese population and obesity related health issues such as coronary heart disease, lower rates of obesity, and longer lives. The French love their food and are very proud of it. Joie de vivre is a French expression for the “joy of living,” translated as a state of healthy balance of mind and body. Preparing and sharing food is one of the —perhaps the essential—pleasures of French culture.
Healthy eating the French way
1. Eating for pleasure
- The French believe in eating in a way they enjoy that invokes pleasure. They avoid diets that are unsustainable and believe in a more natural way of eating. It promotes real food while avoiding processed meals and low-calorie snacks. Eating for pleasure also weeds through many fad diets since those most of the time do not promote eating for enjoyment. If you are eating for pleasure you are also not eating until you are overly full, because being overly full is universally not an enjoyable feeling. If you are not eating for pleasure and eating with a feeling of anxiousness, then that leads to poor digestion and binging.
2. Don’t deprive yourself
- They don’t deprive themselves. Instead, they carefully absorb the taste and texture of their favorite foods. This leaves them more satisfied with savoring them ultimately and eating smaller portions. This is a contrast to the American diet culture of restricting pleasurable food which leads to binging and quickly eating much more than you would have normally. The French know that if you deprive yourself it will just lead to an insatiable craving. Instead, they will share a dessert or just have a bite and leave the rest.
3. Cook fresh food from scratch
- It is common in France to go to the market to pick out fresh produce for the meal you are about to prepare. Fresh food is used as often as possible and French people rarely eat processed and packaged food. And, they would certainly never heat up dinner in the microwave. The act of preparing the meal is part of the enjoyment they have towards food and the meal experience. There is an interest and love in the whole process of mealtimes.
4. Prioritize meal times
- The French prioritize having three balanced meals at set times and this keeps them from snacking all day. They spend a long time eating each of these meals and prioritize eating with friends and family. Meals are also served in courses which causes you to eat slower, get more nutrients in, while aiding in digestion.
5. Eat mindfully and slowly
- For the French, mealtimes are very important and sacred. They would never eat packaged food or eat on the go, especially not while walking. It is an important time to sit down and spend time with your friends and family and eat slowly. Their lunch breaks are around two hours because they take time with their food and believe this break is important, to savor eating which they describe as one of life’s greatest pleasures. French businesses believe the long lunch break boosts productivity as well because it refreshes employees.
6. Fat is not the enemy
- The French diet is based on natural fats such as butter, cheese, and cream. The French do not fear fat and you will have a hard time finding low-fat options in France. New research is suggesting that people who eat full-fat dairy tend to be less obese than those who eat low-fat dairy. Low fat is higher in sugar and more processed and less flavorful which results in less satisfaction- causing you to ultimately eat more. Full fat items keep you fuller for longer while significantly enhancing the taste of your meals.
7. Only eat when you are hungry
- There is a French saying, “Bon repas doit commencer par la faim” – roughly interpreted as “A good meal must begin with hunger”. This may sound like common sense, but it is actually surprising how this aspect of eating has been lost in American culture. They follow their bodies’ natural rhythms and trust their body to tell them when to eat. Eating at regular intervals like they do also prepares the body to be hungry and expect food at certain times.
8. Walk everywhere, active with light workouts
- Gym culture is also not as prominent as it is in America. However, French people stay active by walking everywhere or doing small low-intensity workouts. They understand that working out should lower your cortisol and cause you to feel relaxed, not spike it as some high-intensity workouts and intense gyms do. They work out in a way that feels good and natural to them. They lead active lifestyles by walking throughout the day, not just staying sedentary all day then doing one 20-minute-high intensity workout. It is also common for families to walk together after dinner, so parents are setting an example from an early age of the importance of staying active
Putting healthy eating into practice
When we look at food this way, eating for pleasure, our food decisions come from a combination of what we will enjoy and will also benefit our health which is much more sustainable. The French show us that how you eat is just as important as what you eat, and they are taught these habits from a very early age. French focus on the whole eating experience and think of food as a gift to enjoy and savor and we should eat in a way that is sustainable and enjoyable too. For some delicious French recipes check out these blogs: https://www.frenchgirlcuisine.com/ & https://everydayfrenchchef.com/.
And, if you need help nurturing a healthy relationship with food contact me to set up an appointment. I am a registered dietitian and intuitive eating therapist and I will help you learn to enjoy food again and not be fearful of it.