The French are on to something with this food thing. It’s nothing new—the bestselling French Women Don’t Get Fat helped crack the “French paradox” for us Americans back in 2004. But a few recent books dig a little deeper into the cultural DNA that helps the French stay slim while taking pleasure in foods we think make us fat (bread! cheese! wine!).
The first is The Parisian Diet: How to Reach Your Right Weight and Stay There. Well known nutrition expert Dr. Jean-Michel Cohen — he’s like the Joy Bauer of France — has put together a guide that helps nudge you toward a more French way of losing and maintaining weight. It includes three phases, a short “Cafe” phase meant to kick-start weight loss, a three-week “Bistro” phase designed to generate rapid weight loss, and the “Gourmet” phase, a less-restrictive phase that is designed for “pure enjoyment” and to “restore the the necessary dimension of pleasure into the diet.”
Wait, the French think we don’t get enough pleasure from our diet? Why else would we eat all those pomme frites?
Well, while indulging in greasy take-out and bags of chips may seem pleasurable to some of us, it doesn’t to a French person. According to Cohen, the French associate pleasure with the quality and “naturalness” of the food, and they take pleasure from the whole experience: meal planning, shopping, cooking and eating with others. What we sometimes see as drudgery or a way to just refuel, they cherish as a daily ritual.
This all made sense to me, especially since I’ve been to France a few times, but I didn’t fully understand how deeply the mealtime ritual is embedded into the culture until I read French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting by Catherine Crawford. The book is filled with jaw-dropping anecdotes about young French children with impeccible table manners who willingly help plan and prepare meals and peacefully eat the colorful, sophisticated food their parents eat, trying every dish. Eating on the go or in front of the TV is a huge non-non—mealtime is about spending time together. Again, a ritual.
As soon as they’re ready to gum their first bite of banane, French children are taught how to have a healthy relationship to food. One wise thing French parents do, Crawford found, is to sharply limit snacks so they will be good and hungry for meals. Indeed, Cohen writes that French people take in less than 10 percent of their daily calories between meals. Americans, on the other hand, consume more than 20 percent of their calories from snacks.
If you need more evidence that French kids learn how to enjoy food, just compare these actual school lunch menus:
French school lunch: White cabbage salad (rémoulade), sautéed chicken with mustard, shell pasta, Coulommiers (soft cheese), apple compote
American school lunch: Mozzarella sticks with tomato sauce and garlic pasta noodles
Even if you grew up in a family with strong food traditions, the rushed, convenience-oriented American food mentality is hard to escape. Since hiring a French grandmother to teach you how to appreciate food isn’t very practical, here are a few tips from The French Diet for getting more joie de vivre from your food:
• Make meals a ritual.
• Give your meal your undivided attention: Pay attention to what you eat, not the TV or your work.
• Get the senses involved: Savor each mouthful. Really taste every bite.
• Focus on quality ingredients over quantity.
• Include variety.
• Limit snacking between meals.
To learn more about Dr. Michel Cohen, visit theparisiandiet.com.