I am a 28-year-old American woman from Atlanta, Georgia. Ever since I was a teenager, I, like many women in the US, have had a warped relationship with food. We are told to eat five "small" meals a day, to add more vegetables to our diets and to avoid fried foods, carbs, sweets, dairy, bad fat and even sugar-containing fruit. In short, we are brought up to believe that eating practically any calories at all is something we should feel guilty about or exercise off.
Then I met my boyfriend, Fabien. A French man, he made fun of me for swearing off bread: "But bread is so nourishing," he argued. "There are a lot worse things you could eat than bread."
His friend, Lea, a French woman with the body of a fashion supermodel, agreed. "I don't understand why people in this country do not eat bread. It fills you up," she explained. "I feel like I cannot get full in the US because there is no decent bread around."
Curious how these French people who had entered my life maintained their slim figures eating apparently all the bread they wanted, I began a two-year observation study of their eating habits. Here is what I found.
1. The French stick to three meals a day.
Fabien never snacks. If someone offers him chips or crackers and cheese before dinner, he politely declines. "I want to be hungry when I eat the meal. I do not want to ruin my appetite," he explains.
I noticed the same behavior with Lea. One day, when she was preparing ratatouille for our late lunch, I entered the kitchen to grab a snack and she shooed me away: "We are going to be eating lunch soon! Don't spoil your appetite!"
The truth is, the French love to eat and want each meal to be a sensory experience. They want to be hungry, they want to be seated at the table (they truly never eat on the go), and they want to dine with company whenever possible. Snacks, to them, are simply meal-time spoilers and, ultimately, unnecessary.
2. They do not avoid their vegetables.
Fabien's lunches and dinners always incorporate vegetables, whether it is pasta with mushrooms and broccoli, or rice with a generous portion of green beans or cous-cous with zucchini and onions. If he has his quintessentially French meal of baguette and camembert, he always pairs it with a salad topped with homemade olive oil-based dressing.
I am not sure if French parents are just more successful than American ones in getting their kids to eat (and like) their vegetables, but good-quality produce is absolutely prioritized, and frequenting farmer's markets is a passion for the French, not a chore.
3. The French listen to their bodies' fullness cues.
After my first New Year's six-course feast with Fabien and his family in Paris, I was puzzled more than ever by how the French stayed thin: we ate fatty dishes like foie gois on bread; salmon on toast; scallops seared graciously in butter; fatty duck; rich chocolate mousse and petit fours; and, of course, bread with a variety of cheeses.
The next day, though, I saw how the French feasters made up for a night of over-indulging. Fabien's petite mother only imbibed in black coffee for breakfast and did not desire food until almost 4 p.m. and Fabien, who usually never skips breakfast, eschewed his morning bread and jam.
Because no food is "off-limits" to the French, they in turn do not feel pressured to eat if they are not physically hungry; they know that food will always be there when their bodies ask for it.
4. They prioritize quality over quantity.
Fabien will not eat overly processed bread or cheese in the US. One could argue that he has been spoiled by the high-quality everyday foods in France that he cannot bring himself to enjoy sub-par high-processed foods found readily in the US.
His picky taste buds have him going for organic cheeses and whole-grain, fresh baked bread, items that usually do not have the artificial fillers that grocery store bread and Kraft cheeses do. Putting the quality first contributes to the overall satisfaction he experiences when eating a meal – a lesson in mindful eating we could all benefit from.
5. The French indulge their dessert cravings.
Since no food is off-limits in a French diet, dessert every now and again is perfectly acceptable and never considered something to feel guilty for eating. Sometimes, they end their meal with a yogurt and fruit – a healthy dessert filled with probiotics to aid in digestion.
Sometimes they may pass around a plate of Nutella crepes after dinner, or have a slice of yogurt cake or, in Fabien's case, indulge in a generous serving of Ben and Jerry's. I have noticed (and this is the key) that the French reserve desserts for weekends and special occasions – they are not an everyday part of the French diet.
6. They love to cook.
The French seldom dine out. "Why spend money on a meal out when you can prepare exactly what you want at home for much less?" Fabien reasons. Cooking, in his view, is a part of the sensory experience of eating. There is nothing more fulfilling than preparing a meal and enjoying the pay-off at the end (added bonus: it is a great bonding activity to do with your loved ones!)
Cooking is well-known to be much healthier than eating out. Eating out often has hidden fats and way-too-hefty portions. Cooking is a way to control what actually goes into your body.
7. They never binge drink.
Even in my twenties, I have never gone out with French people my age and taken shots at the bar. That is because the French do not drink to get drunk. "I do not like to feel out of control of my body," Fabien says.
Lea agrees: "When I go out, I want to dance and have a good time. I do not want to be throwing up later."
Drinking to the French is only meant as an accomplice to the delicious food they eat. One, maybe two glasses of wine with dinner or the occasional after-work craft beer is considered enough for them. They drink for taste, not to oblivion.
8. The French stay active in their daily lives.
Last but not least, the French are an active people. They view walking as a perfectly normal way to get from A to B (even in Atlanta, one of the least pedestrian-friendly cities in the US).
They also walk in the evenings to digest their meals or in the mornings to get the blood flowing for the day ahead. Walking, in short, is the perfect mind-clearing therapy for the French.
Culturally, the French also prioritize cleanliness, so they do dedicate time each day to the household tasks, such as vacuuming, ironing, etc. Spending time on the household chores certainly burns more calories than being sedentary on the couch watching TV.
So, what is the diet secret of the French? The very fact that they do not diet, one could argue.