They call it the French Paradox – how the French are able to live on a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fats and still maintain low rates of coronary heart disease (CHD).
The average French person consumes creamy cheeses, buttery pastries, and calorie-rich red wines on a regular basis. But they rarely count calories, often take long lunch breaks (by American standards) and sometimes even nap after their meal.
So why isn’t France an overweight nation? Is weight loss not a struggle for them? And, how do the French maintain such low incidences of coronary heart disease?
It seems like a dream come true, yet if we consume a lot of cheese and pastries the opposite tends to happen. So does the “French diet” really work? Or do the French just have amazing genes?
There are several strong theories on why the French diet works. Together, these theories paint a rather clear picture of why “lifestyle” choices can be better than dieting.
Fact #1: The French Savor Their Food
Like many Europeans, the French have a long tradition of savoring their meals. It is not uncommon to see them sit down to three meals a day at a table with friends and family, away from their work.
French meals are lengthy and relaxed because they believe that you must focus on your food to fully enjoy it.
The French culture doesn’t encourage “inhaling” food on the run because food is meant to be savored, sometimes for hours (and often as a four-course meal!). Fast food is still not very popular in France.
Because the French graze on their food slowly and leisurely the body is able to truly recognize when it’s full. So, though they may sit down for a long lunch of multiple courses, they really don’t consume excessive amounts of food. When they feel full, they quite simply stop. Eating slowly also aids in digestion.
When you eat fast, you are eating faster than your body can register fullness so you will likely overeat. Overeating means excess calories and fats that your body doesn’t need and ultimately leads to weight gain. It can also lead to digestive issues as your body battles to process the extra food.
Fact #2: The French Don’t Deprive Themselves
The French are known for their incredible cheeses and pastries. They also have a great love affair with wine. Unlike American culture they don’t tend to “diet”, they don’t cut out beloved foods, and they don’t limit their cravings.
Instead, they understand that everything works best in moderation. They commit to a small portion size and they savor that portion because they eat very slowly.
Likewise, French people love dessert (they’ve invented some of the world’s most famous desserts!) So, they tend to not overeat at the main meal so they’ll still have an appetite for that decadent dessert.
Fact #3: The French Favor Quality Over Quantity
The French would much rather sit down with a rich, creamy double brie and a freshly baked baguette than rush out for a fast-food burger. Because as a society they’ve been raised to savor high-quality fresh foods. Unfortunately, American society is often targeted by a media that markets in the exact opposite way – with a glorification of fast, cheap food.
The French also don’t hesitate to spend their hard-earned cash on quality food because they know it is far more pleasurable.
Quality, fresh produce (even those high in saturated fats like cheese) are also free of the additives, chemicals, and sugars that you find in cheap, over-processed foods.
The French are especially proud of their food-making culture, and they love to embrace quality, local produce.
Fact #4: The French Shop At Markets
The French frequently shop at their local boulangerie, dine at a local Boucherie, or get products from their favorite fromagerie. Even as we slide further into the 21st Century, the French still love to frequent their local markets for the highest quality food. Which is something to be praised – this supports local businesses and promotes the eating of fresh, nutrient-dense fruit and vegetables over processed foods.
In fact, the French just don’t tend to indulge in processed foods at the rate that American society does. They favor quality (and however long that takes to prepare) over speed and ease. With such a long culinary history, they’ve possibly been taught a greater cooking know-how from a very young age.
Fact #5: The French Enjoy Red Wine
Speaking of locally made produce, red wine is also a staple of the French diet, and many drink 1-2 glasses per day.
It’s interesting that what the French have seemingly known for hundreds and hundreds of years – that red wine is good for you – has now become a modern discovery.
Research shows that red wine is associated with a higher level of HDL (good) cholesterol, with the antioxidant flavonoids in red wine able to inhibit LDL (bad) cholesterol – which is a known contributor to chronic cardiovascular conditions.1,2
Fact #6: The French Stay Active
French people stay fit because exercise is consistently built into their day. They tend to bike or walk to get to where they need to go, and they do so because they enjoy it, not because they have to. Being active is just a normal part of their culture.
Generally speaking, French culture tends to revolve around a “Work to Live” philosophy, whereas American culture tends toward a “Live to Work” one.3 So, built-in daily leisure activities often take a back seat to work. But incorporating exercise into your daily life by walking as much as you can, taking the stairs, or riding a bike allows you to eat more calories while reducing stress and enhancing mental health.
Fact #7: The French Snack Smartly
In France, mealtimes are seen as high priority so people don’t tend to spoil their appetites with unhealthy snack foods. Unfortunately, many traditional snack foods in America are marketed as healthy but are far from it, and leave you feeling hungry an hour later.
When the French snack, they tend to choose whole food products like cheese, yogurt, or fresh fruit and vegetables, rather than, say, processed protein bars. They also lean toward those famed sparking waters over flavored coffee drinks, sodas or sports drinks.
Fact #8: The French Make Mealtimes a Priority
Just as the French like to savor their meals, they also savor the “prospect” of those meals. Set meal times are respected, even by busy people who see them as a respite from their day. They’re also seen as important for maintaining the family unit. French families eat together on a regular basis, with some workers even returning home for long lunch breaks.
Eating and conversing with family or friends turns eating into a ritual that is healthy for both body and mind. When you’re talking with others you tend to eat much slower.
If you still have any doubts about eating like the French, here’s a fun fact: The French multi-course meal has been listed by UNESCO on its “world intangible heritage list”. It’s the only gastronomy entry to date. UNESCO determined French gastronomy is a “social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups”.4
So Can the French Diet Work For You?
Absolutely! The French diet is not a diet at all and the French paradox really isn’t a paradox when you see all of these factors come into play. Overall, it’s about taking life slower and being more mindful. The French don’t have more hours in the day than us, they just prioritize health, family, and happiness.
The French diet means eating without guilt. Decadent food isn’t a sin, it’s a gift. If you constantly deny yourself the foods you love, you’ll only find yourself binging on them later. Practice small portion size with all of your meals and you’ll find that you can have your favorite dessert more regularly then you thought possible.
Embrace French diet food ethics by eating slowly and mindfully. Choose ingredients like fresh produce (including plenty of fruits and vegetables). Enjoy wine in moderation. And don’t forget to move your body — constantly. Try not to snack on the wrong foods and make mealtimes a priority. If you follow the French diet, weight loss could be well within your grasp.
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