Did you know the French have one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe? In contrast to the 22% obesity rate in America, less than 10% of French citizens tip the scales in the obese range. Is it because they’re genetically blessed? Probably not. More likely it’s their eating habits and their approach and mindset towards food. How do they differ from eating habits in the U.S?
French Women Eat Mindfully and Practice Portion Control
The portion sizes we serve up in America are shocking to the French who typically eat half the portion sizes people in Western countries eat at a meal. That doesn’t mean they deprive themselves of the foods they enjoy. They’re not afraid to enjoy a pastry or a serving of dark chocolate, but they keep the portions small, just enough to appreciate the taste – and appreciate it they do. The French eat slowly and mindfully, taking the time to savor each bite. You can do the same.
How can you make meals more mindful and, ultimately, more enjoyable? Stop munching in front of the computer or nibbling while you’re driving – keep your eyes on the road. When you sit down to a meal, focus on what you’re eating by being mindful of the tastes and textures of what you’re experiencing. Slow down the pace of your meals to give your appetite hormones time to signal your brain you’re full.
They Favor Real Foods
The French typically won’t sacrifice quality for convenience. They prefer whole foods rather than packaged and processed ones. They embrace the experience of picking out high-quality whole foods, often from Farmer’s markets and preparing them artfully at home. French citizens choose the best ingredients they can afford for food preparation – extra virgin olive oil rather than the cheaper oils, like soybean oil, you find in most processed foods. Along with meat, they prepare an array of fresh vegetables carefully chosen from a local market or Farmer’s market. Although they generally eat high-calorie foods like cheese, they eat small portions. Presentation is important. To the French, food is an art form.
French Women Eat Yogurt
Supposedly, eating yogurt is one of the secrets the French use to control their weight. They may be on to something. In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, obese adults who reduced their calorie intake by 500 calories daily to lose weight lost more body fat and tummy fat when they consumed three yogurts daily. In fact, the group who ate thrice-a-day yogurt lost 81% more tummy fat and 61% more body fat compared to the control group who didn’t. The reason?
Some studies point to the calcium in yogurt, but yogurt is also a good source of probiotic bacteria, gut-friendly bacteria that play a role in weight control. Obese people have gut populations that differ from leaner folks. In animals, when gut bacteria from a lean animal are transferred to an obese one, the obese one loses weight. Yogurt is also relatively high in protein, making it more satiating than a higher carb choice that lacks protein like a bagel.
Yogurt is readily available in America too. Just don’t buy yogurt sweetened with 27 grams of sugar, like some brands. Look for unflavored yogurt with as little added sugar as possible, then flavor it yourself with fresh, fruit, spices, cocoa powder, Matcha green tea powder, vanilla extract, or other sugar-free flavorings.
They Rarely Snack
In search of food on the go, Americans have become a nation of snackers. In fact, according to a Mintel survey, Millennials snack up to 4 times per day. What’s worse is say they often snack because they’re stressed or bored. That’s a good way to pack on the pounds! In contrast, French people enjoy a large, mid-day meal followed by a light dinner with little or no snacking in-between. Although there’s nothing wrong with a well-planned, healthy snack, some people let snacking get out of hand and use it as a substitute for eating a healthy meal of whole, clean foods. Don’t let that happen to you. Plan your snacks and make sure you’re choosing nutrient and protein-rich snacks rather than empty calories.
The French Don’t Diet
Visit Paris and you won’t hear many women saying they’re “on a diet.” Dieting is not part of their culture as it is in America. If you think about, how many times have you successfully “dieted” and actually maintained the weight you lost? Weight control requires a shift in how you think of food. It’s not about depriving yourself, not only of calories but of nutrients. It’s about making smarter, sustainable dietary choices that you can live with long term. In contrast, dieting slows your metabolism and leads to hunger, frustration, and cravings for the wrong foods. Total deprivation doesn’t work for anyone of any nationality or geographic location. The French aren’t afraid to enjoy higher calorie foods like cheese and buttery croissants in small portions and they have more realistic portion sizes. The size of a standard croissant in France is about half the size of one you get at a coffee house in the United States. Don’t let the portion sizes you get in restaurants and coffee shops fool you. Know what a standard portion looks like.
Will the French Retain Their Low Rate of Obesity?
Longer term – can the French maintain their low rate of obesity? There are signs that the younger generation is embracing Western-style eating habits and visiting establishments like McDonald’s for a quick meal due to time constraints and a lack of desire to cook. They’re also snacking more and washing their snacks down with a sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage. Sound familiar? Fortunately, we have choices regarding what to eat no matter where we live. Obesity rates are slowly rising in French adults too, although more slowly than in adolescents and teens.
If anything, the different rates of obesity show how lifestyle habits and attitudes towards food matter. The idea is simple: choose more whole, unprocessed foods and eat them mindfully. Drop the diet mentality that looks as food as “the enemy.”
WebMD. “French Women’s Diet Secret: Yogurt”
Mintel. “A Snacking Nation: 94% of Americans Snack Daily”. July 9, 2015.
NPR. “The French Are Getting Fatter, Too”