croissant

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.

french-women

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.

cheese-and-baguetteHow 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.

 

at-the-tableFrench 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.

Lesson 2: Portion Control

This one’s not rocket science: portion sizes in France are normal. A French person will typically eat a small breakfast: a pastry or some baguette with butter and jam and a coffee keeps them going until noon, but they’ll usually eat three courses (with wine) at lunch and dinner.

Here’s the thing, though: each course is modest in size. You might get a small serving of soup, pasta or risotto for entree (and it’s genuinely small – say, eight or ten mouthfuls), a fist-sized piece of meat and some fresh vegetables or a salad for main, and a lovingly-prepared piece of gâteau or a pint-sized crème brûlée for dessert.

raspberry-tart-evocateurYes – dessert. Yes, women in France eat dessert at lunch.

But they don’t eat entire tubs of ice cream, and the dessert they do eat is made from the best quality ingredients around. They don’t play games with the vending machine at 3.30 every afternoon, then kick themselves for the rest of the week because “the Mars Bar was giving me seductive looks”. They save themselves for the good stuff.

And of course, bread is put on the table the second you arrive at a restaurant and is eaten throughout the meal, but it’s good quality bread – it’s not full of sugar and preservatives like the stuff we eat here. “French women don’t eat Wonderbread,” Guiliano stresses.

Wash it all down with a glass or two of wine, and finish up with a short coffee, and your midday lunch has not been a stuff-your-face eat-a-thon, but a thoughtful and satisfying pause – the average lunch break in France lasts for one hour and 30 minutes.

Though we often make fun of just how off-the-scale serving sizes in the US can be, it’s little wonder America is mid-obesity crisis. People just don’t need that much food, and it’s something the French whole-heartedly understand. A little can go a long way, particularly when you’re eating high-quality ingredients and a variety of nutrient-rich foods.

Lesson 3: High-quality Ingredients

bikes-and-baguettesThe French might eat seemingly large amounts of pastry, chocolate and butter, but it’s good quality pastry, chocolate and butter. They believe that life’s too short to eat bad food. How could you not be on board with that?

If you’re going to invest the time and energy into preparing a meal (which the French do – they invented mise en place for godssake), you want to make it worth eating, and that means using the finest ingredients and freshest produce around. Because the ingredients are of such high quality, they’re satiated by small amounts.

They’re mad for fresh food markets – they’re not just novelty outings like they are to so many of us in Australia. It’s commonplace for the French to buy fresh meat, cheese and fruit and vegetables several times a week at the local markets. They religiously buy bread on a daily basis: that picture of a Frenchman riding home with a baguette in his bicycle basket is not just romantic fiction.

It also helps that French children are involved in sourcing, cooking and learning to appreciate food from a very young age. French state creches are renowned for feeding their kids real food – it’s hard to distinguish kindergarten lunch time menus from meals at the country’s best brasseries. There are no kids menus – no nuggets and chips to be found in France.

Author of French Children Don’t Throw Food Pamela Druckerman shares some inspiring advice in her guide to French parenting, explaining that French parents introduce their kids to different foods “with a whole different level of intention and commitment”.

“They describe the taste of each vegetable, and talk about their child’s first encounter with celery or leeks as the start of a lifelong relationship,” she says.

Kids are encouraged – but not forced – to taste and understand a wide variety of meats, cheeses and vegetables, as well as how to sit at and participate socially at the table during meals.

“[It is never suggested that] a flavour might be too intense or complicated for a child’s palate,” Druckerman adds.

The point is that children give every food a chance. Nurturing a love for, and healthy attitude towards eating from a young age can play a significant role in them developing a positive relationship with food.

 

provenece-marketsFresh food markets in Aix-en-Provence, where I loaded up on prosciutto, a lovely comte cheese and a rudely-sized chunk of dark chocolate dotted with roasted nuts… for breakfast.
 

Really, in the end they’re quite simple lessons: be mindful when you’re eating, don’t eat too much, and eat good-quality food.

Who knows, by introducing just a little French into your life, your stress levels and waistline (not to mention taste buds!) might just thank you for it.

 

Author’s note: I have to disclose that I didn’t actually follow the teachings of Lesson 2: Portion Control while in France. In actual fact, I was eating as much chocolate as I could possibly put in my mouth at every available opportunity. I left no chocolatier’s window un-gazed in: that stuff is worth its weight in gold and given my time in France was limited, I surrendered to the little voice inside telling me to just enjoy it – all of it – while it lasted.

 

Do you take a ‘French’ approach to eating?

Perhaps you’re a foodie, or love France and just want to gush about your culinary experiences?

 

*Raspberry tart photograph by Evocateur via hipparis.com.

 

MORE ARTICLES BY HAYLEY GLEESON

How to Be Alone

I Shop Like a Man

Turning Off the TV… For Good

 

hayley-headshot*Hayley (The Hoopla’s Managing Editor) is passionate about publishing positive, real content for women and girls. Her background in marketing, advertising and design has seen her work closely with many brands for women over the past six years, including a collection of titles at Pacific Magazines. She loves science, cycling, cats, sloths, fibre media, eating and cooking good food, and women doing great things. You can follow her on Twitter: @Hayley_Gleeson.

 

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14 Comments

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Jack Richards

    When I was a kid growing up in this country in the 50s and 60s it was rare to see a fat person. There was one fat kid at my school, Big Wally, and he was as thick as two short planks but always had money for a bag full of cream buns.

    The difference was: in those days there were no McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Hungry Jacks, Kebabs shops, Gourmet Pie shops, Charcoal Chicken, Ice-cream Parlours, Food courts or even many restaurants. You could walk down the main street and not be assailed by inviting aromas coming from every second shop. The only take-aways were from the bakery or the Greek-owned fish’n’chip Café.

    Food was expensive in those days. If you wanted chicken, you killed one of your own chooks, gutted it, plucked it and cooked it. Pork was something you might have at Christmas. There were no frozen vegetables so most people grew their own – then you’d have to shell the peas, string the beans, and dig up the potatoes. Eating was preceded by much drudge work and then it was cooked on a wood stove that initially required a walk to the wood-heap and the swinging of an axe. Even making toast required effort. First you got the stove-fire going, then you carved off a slice of bread, then you fitted it to the toasting fork, then you opened the fire-box door and then you sat there while it toasted. Maybe it was the little bit of ash or the smoke, but toast always tasted better in those days. Once it was done, you then applied your home-made jam made from fruit you had picked from your own trees.

    My mother’s family all came from West Yorkshire so we ate a lot of traditional North English “cuisine” – which I’m sure all started out as a dare. Everything seemed to include liberal quantities of guts: liver, kidney, tripe, brains, “sweetbreads”. It was just disgusting. Dessert was always the fruit we had preserved ourselves with our own Vacola bottling set-up.

    Basically, eating was a lot of hard work and the end result was often something that resembled the contents of a can of Pal but with less appeal.

    The only thing I miss about those days is the toast.

    If we want to beat the obesity epidemic we should ban all fast-food outlets, close all the restaurants and food-courts, ban all microwaves, electric and gas stoves, ban all frozen foods, and make everyone cook on a wood-fired stove and eat only traditional Yorkshire cuisine with fresh ingredients. In no time at all the kilos would fall off and we’d all be thin and fit again.

    If you girls want to be thin and fit like my grand-mother was, get a wood stove, an axe and a hatchet, and chop and cart a tonne of wood a week.

    I have a great recipe for boiled tripe and onions in a white caper sauce if anyone is interested. We always had that on Monday and I could smell it in the pressure cooker as soon as I got off the school bus 100 yards from home.

    • Reply March 31, 2013

      Janet G

      That’s funny Jack and reminds me of a visit I made to Paris with my family a few years ago. The weather was beautiful so we walked to the Jardin du Luxembourg for a picnic. We had bought an array of bread, ham, cheese and chocolate from the large supermarket near to our hotel and proceeded to unwrap it while sitting watching the little boys sail their boats in the fountain. Around us we noticed that all the families were eating Macdonalds from the newly opened store near to the park. As we ate these people began to stare. I am sure they thought that in comparison to our beautifully presented fare they were merely eating colourful cardboard boxes. From the article, it seems the French have become more cautious about ‘freedom fries’ than many other nations.

    • Reply April 2, 2013

      HellB

      You’re so right Jack. Did you ever see a show on the ABC called “The 40s House” – it was a similar concept to what you are saying, except it was a reenactment of the 40s lifestyle during the war, so they also had rations on the food available etc. To cut a long story short, the women in the show had to walk to the market every day to purchase the food, cook it on wood-burning stoves, wash the clothes by hand, wring them out with a wringer etc. By the end of the show they had not only lost weight doing it but realised the benefits of putting some thought and effort into what they were eating.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Maureen P.

    “If you girls want to be thin and fit like my grandmother was, get a wood stove, an axe and a hatchet, and chop and cart a tonne of wood a week.”

    Good Grief, Jack. Isn’t that what males are for?

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    helen b

    Lovely Hayley! Refeshing to read an article which aligns with my own feelings about food and eating.

    Yes, I travelled in France in my younger years, but my attitudes didn’t come from observing the customs there

    My body has been telling me all my life about what I like to eat and how much…despite ‘others’…friends, family, dieticians and health experts telling me the contrary. When I was 6 at a freind’s birthday party, the parents of the friend (my family doctor) insisted I eat icecream cake. They couldn’t believe I didn’t like icecream. Buliied into eating it, I thence threw up all over the carpet. Just desserts for them I think.

    I don’t need a large quantity of food and don’t crave outside of meals. But I like good food, fresh food, keep clear of preservatives as much as possible. Good chocolate…yes! Wine…not always ‘the best’, but sufficient with meals for the digestion.

    My mother taught ‘everything in moderation’, which still works for me. Large meals eating out just turn my stomach. Less is more.

    History helps. I come from a family of slow eaters….mostly! Childhood mealtimes, whilst not French cooking, were simple, nutritious and tasty. My mother loved cooking desserts and would often make a choice of 3 for us all.

    I feel food is a nourishment for the body but equates to the love and need for love in our lives. Just a theory. The desperate need to eat more often to the point of gluttony (Christmas Day is a case in point) is feeding a desperate craving for more nourishment.

    I know when I feel out of sorts (emotionally and/or mentally…anxiety etc) I don’t feel like eating. Others, in this state, want to eat more as comfort. We’re all different.

    I believe when we are fully enjoying our food, not gorging to ‘fill up’ either physically and/or emtionally, then we’re eating to suit our bodies and metabolism.

    So, on my premise about the role of love in relation to eating, I can only surmise that the French…according to your article are more in touch with love for themselves, their bodies, the earth and their connection to the earth.

    All about self-esteem, cultural practices and LOVE! Just a theory, mind you.

    .

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    steven herrick

    this article makes many good points – similar to Michael Pollan’s wonderful ‘In Defence of Food.’ Last year, I cycled across France from west to east, marvelling at the variety and quality of food on offer, even in small villages. The 1,200 kilometres allowed me to eat more than I would in Australia – three courses for lunch, four courses for dinner.
    I wrote about the cycling (and the food and accommodation) in my book, ‘baguettes and bicycles’
    http://www.amazon.com/baguettes-and-bicycles-ebook/dp/B00ADTILCW

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Wendy Harmer

    This is a wonderful article, Hayley. I must admit, I’ve been avoiding it today, being Easter Sunday – too much chocolate. But instead of socffing the cheap and cheerful chocs… perhaps some exquisite dark chocolate shared with friends is the way to go. Very sane advice.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    TKS

    I think people are missing a major point on why French women tend to be slimmer. The French walk everywhere on foot! They walk to the metro to travel longer distances and there’s no damn seats on the metro platforms.

    Many Paris buildings are old and multi-storey. French women do a lot of stair climbing. They also shop fairly regularly so they are walking back and forward to the shops on a daily basis (carrying groceries up several flights of stairs).

    Its no mystery – incidental exercise accounts for massive amounts of calories burnt. If people in Australia spent a couple of hours a day walking and stair climbing we’d all be alot less fat too.

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    The Huntress

    I completely agree with this article. Food is my love and passion and I spend much of my time thinking, planning and shopping what we eat in our home. The whole process brings me pleasure, from planning the meal, to choosing the ingredients and serving it to people. I love to cook for people.

    I maintain a standard weight – I’m a tall, curvy lady, I’m definitely not skinny, but with some variations I’m generally a size 10. I don’t do anything special to my diet or lifestyle (Ok, if I exercised more I could probably maintain a size 8, but I’m really not that interested), just eat what I want, when I want and enjoy. I honestly do believe if we stopped this wretched relationship with food/guilt/control/badness we would be a lot healthier. And happier at that.

    And with today being Easter and all I would MUCH prefer a 20gm bar of 64% Valrhona than a 250gm bar of Cadbury. A truly beautiful chocolate that leaves you well satisfied with just a couple of little squares. Happy Easter everyone!

  • Reply March 31, 2013

    Bella

    Helen B – you reminded me of my childhood and my mother, who wasn’t a fancy cook, very plain food, always made dessert. Her forte was puddings in particular. I remember when she rather hopefully suggested she stop making dessert my father and I objected very strongly for obvious reasons – poor Mum had to keep on making dessert. Now she can’t remember how she made them and I have recipes for some but not for all of them. Great article – made me think about my time in Paris and eating with relatives who served lunch that had a number of courses and also going to the local food market with my cousin who was a very reserved scientist by profession but when buying food at the markets became very animated. All in french of course. I couldn’t understand a word but loved seeing this other side of her.

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    Kaz

    Wise words, Helen B

  • Reply April 2, 2013

    Prawnfraser

    I like the CNP diet – Consume No Processed food.
    Most of the aisles in the supermarket are full of stuff we just don’t need.
    Also, was it Michael Pollan who said, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

  • Reply April 17, 2013

    Yves

    Excellent article!
    One of my clients Lisa sent me the link to your blog: “that article could have come from your pen!” she said. She is so right.

    I am a nutrition coach and my approach is based on the French Paradox (very well explained in your article) and a century of expertise in my family. I was born and raised in the South West of France, one of the most renowned gastronomic regions in the country. Aurillac, where I grew up, is the capital city of one of the oldest French cheeses, Le Cantal. It’s also home to, nurturing and healing, traditional slow-cooked dishes made using fresh whole foods. My great grandmother Marguerite was a popular cook and healing practitioner during the 1920s.

    The French Paradox refers to the low rate of ‘modern lifestyle diseases’ in France despite the diet being rich in saturated fat and other supposedly harmful foods: only 35% of the French population is obese or overweight compared to more than 65% of Australians; the French also enjoy the lowest levels of heart diseases of all western countries and live longer, healthier lives.

    In 1992, Dr Serge Renaud coined the term the French Paradox. Since then, many studies have confirmed his findings, including research by Australian naturopath Frank Cooper, which showed that French cuisine contradicts what we have been told about diet for years. Little wonder why the UNESCO granted ‘the Gastronomic Diet of the French’ status as a ‘World Heritage Treasure’ in 2010.

    And as very well developed in your article, if the benefits of the French Paradox come mainly from food, traditions, lifestyle, approach to food and even French laws (very French!) also play a critical role.

    Your body is where you spend your life, and the French Paradox principles can help you make it a great place to live to feel better, look younger and sustain a healthy weight, with a lot of pleasure along the way, as the French do.
    And I’ll be very happy to show you the way!

    Yves
    http://www.nutritionbyyves.com.au
    http://www.facebook.com/healingnutritionbyyves

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