Two weeks of cheese, bread, olives, butter, cream, and wine? As a health conscious and discriminating eater that sounded a bit daunting. Yet, returning home after two weeks in France I felt healthy, satisfied and a little bit lighter. In recent years, I experienced the same sense of well being and satisfaction on trips to Argentina and Costa Rica. Replacing kale, quinoa and Kombucha with local cuisines I returned home feeling healthier and a few pounds slimmer. Each trip has confirmed my suspicion that at least part of the obesity epidemic in America is cultural. We live in an environment dominated by an abundance of processed foods chock full of ingredients our bodies cannot detect. I certainly do not throw caution to the wind and eat anything I want on vacation, but I generally do relax a little, trying new foods and indulging in new cuisines. In the US, we have developed a food culture where in order to eat a sensible and healthy diet we have become hypervigilant about our food sources and preparation. At home I am constantly searching Whole Foods for organic fruits and vegetables, sustainably raised fish and meat, and non-genetically modified foods. It’s exhausting. In France, I enjoyed the richness of real foods…fruit, coffee, milk, eggs, tomatoes, bread, wine, sugar, butter, and cheese. The curtain had been lifted; I could tell what I was eating by taste and sight alone! Joie de vivre!
As a physician and health coach I do not believe that being overweight or obese is a natural state that most people seek out or prefer, yet over two-thirds of Americans are struggling to maintain a healthy weight. I do not believe that extra pounds are a result of moral failure, weak willpower or often even conscious decisions. I believe that in America we are living in the midst of a system wide breakdown. In a country obsessed with beauty, youth and celebrity, we worship at the altar of the diet industry and jump whole-heartedly from one food fad to the next. Many of us await with bated-breath the advent of a fast and easy solution or magic pill. The maxim ”eat healthy and exercise regularly” is repeated ad nauseam by doctors, health experts and the media. Yet, we are more confused than ever. What is healthy? Is a gluten-free, vegan, Atkins, low-carb, or the Paleo diet the path to health?? Should we listen to the advise of physicians, Dr. Oz, Cameron Diaz or Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal trainer? In a world with so many options, we are left perplexed, often still hungry, and continuing to watch our nation’s waistline expand.
France provides the starkest contrast to the culinary atmosphere in America that I have experienced and left me wondering if we could translate some of the French living and dining habits stateside. Perhaps we may begin to tip our scales in the right direction.
So what exactly do the French do differently?
1. Portions are small, sometimes even tiny. The concept of an appetizer, main course, bread with your meal, and even dessert do not seem decadent. Each portion is small enough to add up and come together to create a complete meal. Of course, you are still in control of your plate and can choose healthier options like fish or more rich options like foie gras for each course. Each portion is served in an appetizing manner on small dishes that are appropriate for the course. Not once was my husband or myself served a large, overwhelming bowl or plate of food.
Stateside translation: At home, serve smaller portions on smaller plates, if you are still hungry get a second portion or dessert. At many restaurants in the US, portions are huge…try ordering two appetizers as a main course or share appetizers or small sharing plates with dining companions to experience more flavors.
2. Meals come with little treats. Espresso served with a two-bite muffin. Lunch begins with crudities of sliced raw veggies to dip in vinaigrette and ends with a two-bite piece of chocolate. Olives and nut almost always accompany cocktails or wine. Dinner begins with an amuse-bouche of eggplant and caviar or smoked salmon or a simple olive tapenade on toast. An amuse-bouche is French for “mouth amuser” and refers to a one bite hors d’oeuvres served to patrons for free to begin a meal. In France, your mouth is very happy, your mind is very satisfied and there is still plenty of room left in your belly.
Stateside translation: At home make your own amuse-bouche or one bite appetizers. Keep it simple like raw veggies or tomatoes and mozzarella. One extra bite somehow makes a meal that much more special. Dining out, try a local French restaurant to get a taste of French cuisine.
3.You can taste the sugar, salt and fat. One of the most staggering differences between France and America is that processed foods are harder to find in France and thus less tempting. Even France’s version of Starbucks, Paul, looks and smells like a bakery, baking homemade bread all day long. In France, you know when you are eating sugar, salt, and fat…you can taste it. In America, we find ourselves trying to make healthy choices by opting for low fat cheese, gluten free pretzels, or protein bars…and we end up eating sugar, salt and fat but without the enjoyment.
Stateside translation: Avoid processed food as much as possible by cooking at home more. Start by cooking in one or two nights more per week and start packing your lunch with the leftovers.
4. French dining out is a leisurely experience. From an afternoon coffee in a café to a full course dinner, meals are leisurely and can last hours. The location, ambiance, company and conversation are as important as the main course. By slowing down and enjoying each meal, you unknowingly begin to eat mindfully. Each bite is savored and tastes just a little bit better.
Stateside translation: At home, turn off the television, and set your table with your best dishes. Make even a week night dinner in into something special. Dining out, linger and enjoy the conversation. Don’t order right away and enjoy a coffee or tea after your meal. If you are dining alone, take a good book or a newspaper with you and find an outdoor spot to watch the crowds like a European.
5. Parisians walk…and walk and walk. Paris is the birthplace of the flâneur, which is French for stoller. From taking a leisurely stroll, or flânerie, along a Parisian boulevard, in a park or in the countryside the French know how to enjoy a good long walk. The daily activity levels of strolling Europeans and car-bound Americans appear worlds apart. An hour of exercise in the gym cannot replace miles of walking as part of a daily routine.
Stateside translation: Get out of the your car and walk whenever possible. At work, take the stairs, walk to lunch, take a walk on your break. Get a pedometer, fitbit or download an app to track your steps to monitor how much you move in a day. Take an early morning or evening stroll for the pleasure of it.
As the French say “Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup”….Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly.