French women may not get fat, ala the book title, but I can assure you that American women living in France do (or at least one such young woman). Studying abroad in France affords one an array of experiences. Students returning home from their year abroad have ultimately grown in many ways. Some have fallen in love. Others have secured a job. Still many others have cultivated their French speaking ability or their love for art. In my case, I had done all of the above but, in addition, had secured an additional 15 pounds to bring home as well. Thank God I didn’t have to pay customs duty on pounds acquired upon my return.
At the beginning of my year abroad, I arrived in Strasbourg with multiple suitcases, a few years of French under my belt and my very American ways. Throughout my time as a busy college student, I had perfected eating on the run and brought coffee with me (laced with artificial sweetener, thank you very much) to every class I attended.
I was met with confusion from French proprietors when I asked if they had a to-go cup for my coffee. “Emporter” (to go) was not something the French had even considered. “We take our coffee in a café,” my host mother explained. My mouth fell agape at how much time French people were wasting by not taking their coffee with them. How could they live?
It turns out they lived very well and led long, robust lives that did not include “emport-ing” their beverages or food. I continued my American ways by consuming cheesy baguette sandwiches whilst walking down the street to class. Countless eyes stared and rolled at me as I passed them mid-chew. To me, this was lunch. To the Strasbourgeois, it was sacrilege.
Even then I noticed it. I suppose it came to my attention when I went to my favorite boulangerie for a croissant snack and it was closed! A sign reading “Ferme” chided me as I tugged at the door handle to find no give at all. No pull. Just “Ferme.” I had expected it to open easily — ringing the bell that would signify my entrance to Madame Jurdant who would race to procure me my favorite pain au chocolate. But, no. She was ferme. And I was sad. I realized that it was lunch time. All the boulangeries (the bakeries), the offices and most of the shops…they all closed for an hour or more each afternoon to give proprietors and employees time to eat and to enjoy their families. Sometimes, there was even time for a siesta.
My friend, Maura, was living with a family whose patriarch ran a fancy French company. He was busy, but each day, even he would make it home for a leisurely lunch complete with a bottle of wine at the table. This was so foreign to us as Americans.
It turns out that this is all part of the French plan. They actually take time to eat and to enjoy it. We wolf down food between emails, no matter the taste, often at our desks chained to our multiple screens.
It’s no secret that our habits as American eaters sabotage our weight loss efforts. We want our food 10 minutes ago and we eat it on the go. It often seems easier and less time-consuming to open a can or a package to meet our nutritional needs than to cook something.
We work more, rest little and are moving less and less. It’s no wonder we’re one of the biggest nations on earth … and I’m not talking land mass. French people take twice the time to eat each day that we do, and, because of this, we eat between 10 to 30 percent more than we really need to. Taking time to actually eat meals instead of gulping them down helps us get fuller while eating the precise amount we need, rather than eating too much too quickly before we even realize it.
We eat with guilt and surround it with shame. We count calories and macros and worry while we eat. We label foods as “good” and “bad.” Instead of worrying, French people enjoy and don’t consider it gluttony not to skip a meal.
Quality not quantity
The French have a reputation for eating decadent things like butter and cream, but they don’t eat much of them. Of course for me, the sauce was the best part of the meal, so I perfected the phrase “plus du sauce” (extra sauce) each time I ordered. No wonder I kept seeing the extra pounds creep up on the scale and the extra inches on my waistline.
A little of everything is a great concept, but because our grocery stores are stuffed full of foods that are designed to be over consumed, it may not work like that for Americans. By choosing high-quality, organic ingredients (when available) we may be able to offset it, but many factors contribute to that. Mireille Guiliano, the author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” discusses that it’s OK to eat a piece of pizza once in a while, but not everyday. “(For us,) it’s not comprehensible,” she says.
Many brands’ European recipes are completely different than those in the U.S. Take ketchup, for instance. The French version of Heinz Ketchup contains sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup AND corn syrup, both of which the US version contains. Activia yogurt had a larger serving size, but about a third less added sugar.
The French have a lower sugar intake overall. Their produce is fresher and their meat contains fewer steroids and growth hormones. Practices such as chlorinating poultry is not allowed in the EU as they are here in the U.S. Sadly, the U.S only bans chemicals from use on food and in farming only after they have been proven through long-term studies to be harmful. Europe, on the other hand, bans a chemical if there’s even a mild possibility it’s hazardous.
Enjoy moving more and relaxing
The U.S. is the only developed nation that does not require employers to give their employees paid vacation. Europeans can take five to six weeks of paid vacation whereas we, as Americans, often are too busy to plan to take more than two. Work-life balance may be more easily discussed than done, but ultimately, there will be a balance. It just may be out of whack.
Ultimately, we don’t want to make food our enemy. Moving is important and, by default, is a central player in the French lifestyle, but exercise isn’t something the French use to offset their caloric intake. While Americans work more and more, the French made a move to work less, setting the work week at 35 hours in 2000.
Big Food made snacking a thing in the 1980s. Slogans reinforced that snacking “wasn’t for nibblers” so we dove into snacks voraciously. Most Americans eats two-to-four snacks a day and 20 percent of Americans get the majority of their calories from snacks. According to the French, it’s OK to feel hungry, so snacks aren’t thought to be necessary. Many people attribute eating seasonally with good health and a fit lifestyle, which could make getting local produce at a cheaper price easier.
Sadly, France is getting fatter (with our help, no doubt). Starbucks arrived to teach them about the importance of coffee “emporter” and they’ve been “blessed” with an influx of fast-food restaurants. Up from 17 percent in 2014, France has a current rate of obesity nearing 22 percent. Americans are at 36 percent currently (and that’s the low report).
Here is a recipe worth taking your time to eat and enjoy.
Strasbourgeois potato salad
1 pound small multi color potatoes, organic
2 carrots, diced finely
½ large red onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 ears of corn, cut from cob
1 handful parsley, chopped
2 parts EVOO
1 part apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon stone ground mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Fill a pot with water and a pinch of salt.
Boil potatoes until tender (about 15-20 minutes, depending on size).
Set aside to cool. Cut into quarters when cooled.
Use potato water to cook ears of corn, 5 minutes.
Set aside to cool.
Chop carrots, celery, onion and parsley.
Combine all ingredients for dressing and shake.
Once corn has cooled, remove from cob with a knife.
Combine all ingredients, dressing as desired.
Replace summer potato salad made with mayo with this one for a great picnic option!