HAVE YOUR GÂTEAU AND EAT IT, TOO
I have just returned home from three glorious, gluttonous weeks in France – punctuated by a four-day pause on the glistening Lake Como in Italy. Stop rolling your eyes.
Whenever I visit a new country I love discovering people’s little quirks and different ways of doing things. After a holiday in Japan, I ate all my meals with chopsticks. I got back from Spain unable to eat anything for breakfast other than jamon y queso (cured ham and cheese). My ‘culture’ lessons don’t have to be deeply philosophical or require me to participate in extreme rituals; I just like finding neat things I can introduce to my own everyday.
My take-home from France was a broader lesson on How to Eat. Because the French really do know how to eat.
The rest of the world has always had an obsession with France and its food. Globally, France has produced some of the best chefs of all time. Countless films and documentaries have sought to excite and expose us to the wonderful world of French gastronomy – a pillar of French culture that is rooted in colourful and controversial history.
At the same time, we often think of the French as a svelte population; French women in particular consistently attract attention for being slim. What’s their secret, we ask. Just why don’t they get fat?
Though they’re reportedly on the rise, France’s obesity rates are among the lowest in the world. And it’s something I noticed everywhere in France; from the glamourous arcades of Paris to the more relaxed promenades down south, it’s rare to come by an overweight person. At one point I made a concerted effort to spot someone – anyone – with even a little extra padding. I failed.
How confusing, then – isn’t French food meant to be fattening? Cheese, cream, butter, foie gras, rich, meaty dishes, pastries, desserts (stay focused, now), and of course wine are considered dietary staples, but elsewhere we’re led to believe that foods like these should be avoided if we’re to keep the kilos at bay.
According to obesity specialist Dr. Jean Marc Catheline, it’s their obsession with food that helps the French maintain slender waistlines.
“The French know how to cook and prepare food,” he told NPR.
“French families have always known what’s good for them and what isn’t. We are also a country with strong rural traditions and great respect for food from the farm.”
He makes solid points, though I have my own theories on why the French don’t all resemble the Michelin Man to add. After all, one can’t spend three weeks in a country that eats cheese with a knife and fork on a daily basis and not be intrigued by their eating behaviours.
Lesson 1: Invest in the Experience of Eating
In France, meal times are sacred. The French pour enormous amounts of love, care and precision into cooking and serving great food; they fully immerse themselves in the experience of eating. Be that solo or with family or friends, if food is on the table, they’re present. They eat slowly, and deliberately, and enjoy the textures and flavours in every mouthful.
Here, we do everything in a hurry – our meal times are often squeezed in between work commitments and social events and we forget (or perhaps don’t even think) to slow down and simply eat.
French dining: slow it all down. Photo by Mecredis.
On one particular day in Metz (a little town not too far out of Paris), I watched over my steak frites as a chatty family of five went silent when dessert was served. Until that point they’d been laughing and swapping stories, but as soon as those custards and cakes hit the table, they all shut up, and didn’t resume talking until they’d put their spoons down again.
It was a beautiful thing to observe, but it also screamed an important point at me: being mindful when eating is what it’s all about. When you concentrate on what you’re eating – not on the TV or the computer screen, and not on your emails as you dash between meetings – when you’re truly present, you can hear your body’s signals properly. You’ll begin to recognise when you’re satisfied and won’t keep eating out of habit. If you’ve consciously enjoyed your lemon tart, you won’t keep craving more – your body will know when enough’s enough.
Also, the French don’t stress about eating like we do.
I’m not a fan of gimmicky diets, but author of French Women Don’t Get Fat Mireille Guiliano makes stupid amounts of sense when she compares French attitudes to eating with American attitudes to eating. Guiliano explains that when we allow enjoyable, normal rituals like eating to become sources of anxiety in our lives, we’re “erasing the simple values of pleasure”. Ergo, we miss out on one of the simple pleasures of life!
“French women take pleasure in staying thin by eating well, while American women see it as a conflict and obsess over it,” she explains.
“French women typically think about good things to eat. American women typically worry about bad things to eat.”
Food for thought: what if we ate for pleasure and to feel good – not just to be thin? It seems being on a diet is having no impact on our high rates of obesity anyway: although one quarter of us are reportedly on a diet, obesity continues to make headlines – with 63% of Australians now considered overweight or obese. Light bulb: diets don’t work.
Actually listening to your body and eating when you’re hungry – and what makes you feel good – seems quite a logical approach to me.
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