The French are known for their health and longevity, despite having a high rate of smoking. In fact, the average life expectancy in France is just over 82 years compared to only 78 years for Americans. Projections are that by the year 2030, women in France will live an average of 88.6 years and men 81.7 years on average. In fact, the French lead the world in terms of longevity. They also have one of the lowest obesity rates in modern countries. But, why? And are there secrets we can learn about living a long and healthy life from the French and how does their culture support health and longevity?
When we consider the health of a culture, one of the first things we look at is diet. Surprisingly, The French are not known for skimping on decadent foods. They enjoy their share of freshly baked croissants, delicate pastries, freshly baked bread, cheese, and wine in moderation. Despite these indulgences, they maintain a low rate of obesity. In fact, the rate of obesity among French women is 24% compared to 33.7% in the United States. Interestingly, the obesity rate rose between 2006 and 2015 in most of Europe but remained stable in France over the same period. So, the French must be doing something right!
The French Eat Differently
Unlike American restaurants where portions are double and triple what they should be, French restaurants serve portions that are far more reasonable. And you don’t find all-you-can-eat buffets in most parts of France! In fact, the concept would be rather foreign to them. The emphasis is on food quality rather than quantity. They also eat more home-cooked meals and fewer packaged and processed foods relative to people in Western countries.
The French also know a thing or two about eating mindfully. Rather than wolfing down a meal, they savor each bite and eat far fewer bites than the average American. That’s beneficial since it takes 20 minutes for appetite hormones to kick in and tell you that you’re full. The average French person would be appalled at the serving sizes the average American is accustomed to! But, the French learn about portion sizes early in life, as children, when we typically form food preferences and habits. Residents of France learn to eat smaller portions early on and can’t identify with the large platefuls of food that Western countries embrace. Food is enjoyed mindfully in France.
Also, the French government took a controversial step recently to curb the recent increase in obesity rates in France. They banned free refills on syrupy, sugar-filled beverages, like soft drinks, from public sites like restaurants and schools. This move could potentially pay off as studies link consumption of soft drinks with a higher risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. The government also taxes beverages that contain lots of sugar. The French still enjoy modest amounts of sugar in the form of pastries and chocolate, but the portions they consume are smaller than what the typical American eats.
The French Time Their Meals Differently
People in Western countries consume more snack calories. The average American eats throughout the day and typically devour the biggest meal in the evening. In contrast, the French traditionally eat a large lunch and consume only small portions at dinner. They also tend not to snack between meals. How is this beneficial? There’s some evidence that eating the larges meal earlier in the day and fasting for periods of time can slow the aging process. One way intermittent fasting may slow aging is by reducing the damage to mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles inside cells. More research is needed, but intermittent fasting as an anti-aging strategy is becoming popular in American. Giving our bodies a rest from food may be beneficial.
More Walking, Less Sitting
We know that physical activity contributes to a longer life while sitting for prolonged periods of time is linked to higher mortality. The French are naturally more active and take more steps each day, on average, relative to Americans. In fact, Americans rank pretty low compared to other countries in terms of how many steps we take. One study compared the steps taken between countries over the course of a day. Here’s what it showed:
· Germany 6337
· France 6330
· Great Britain 6322
· America 5815
So, compared to some European countries, Americans sit more walk and walk less. That’s not a good thing!
The French Are More Laid Back
The French don’t rush through life at a frenetic pace in the same way Americans do. They stop to smell the rose and have real conversations with others. Doing this helps reduce stress and that’s good for health and longevity. In fact, unlike Americans who take 2 weeks off for vacation per year, the French take a full month! Everything is a bit slower in the country of France. The two-hour lunches, the coffee house excursions that aren’t rushed, and the desire to really experience life rather than rushing through each day at a fevered pace with blinders on. You might say, the French are a more mindful society. What could be better than slowing down and experiencing the sights and sounds around you?
The Bottom Line
The French have a longevity advantage over people who live in Western countries. This may be partially explained by the lower rate of obesity. But, the fact that the French are less likely to be obese likely has something to do with their more active lifestyle, emphasis on quality foods in modest portions, and their less frenzied lifestyle. Could we take a few lessons from them? Yes! Approaching life more mindfully and being aware of what and how much we’re eating and moving our bodies will pay off. If there’s one thing we can learn from the French is to be mindful when choosing what we eat and mindful about how we live our lives in general. Slow down a little, but make sure you’re also moving your body and not sitting too much. It matters!
The Commonwealth Fund. “Overweight and Obesity Prevalence Level Off in France”
The Oxford Institute of Population Aging “Why do French women live longer than English?”
AARP. “Why the French Live Longer”
Withings.com. “What Steps Data tells us about Country Lifestyles”
The Harvard Gazette. “In pursuit of healthy aging”