World diet’s – France: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 80.98 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 34.7 male; 45.6 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 6.6 male; 7.8 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 101.1 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
Buttery croissants, foie gras , gooey cheeses, full-fat yogurts, rich pastries and chocolates, wine with dinner every evening—how do the French seemingly indulge in every bad-for-you food under the sun and still stay so slender?
Remarkably, despite the astronomical fat content of their foods, the French have much lower obesity rates than Americans: 9.5 percent compared to our 33 percent. They also have a pretty impressive life expectancy: 77.7 years for men and 84.2 years for women. Although certain outside influences contribute to these enviable stats—including the French health-care system, consistently rated among the best in the world—the French also have a few secrets to staying thin and healthy.
WHAT THEY EAT
The French take great pride in their national joie de vivre—taking pleasure in the finer things in life, especially food. There are no prohibited foods in French cooking, whatever the fat content. In fact, the French eat anything and everything they want—in moderation. The emphasis on quality over quantity is a cornerstone of the French culinary philosophy. They prefer to fill up on small quantities of heavy foods rather than stuff themselves with empty calories, so even if the ingredients are high-fat, the portions are consistently small. Fat-free or low-fat “diet” foods are anathema to everything the French hold dear about dining.
For the French, the bottom line is, eat whatever you want—just make sure you enjoy it. Treat every meal like a special event, a little break from the humdrum. The French seldom snack, as they would rather save their appetites for the main event. The French attitude toward wine is similar. Although they enjoy red wine—which has been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease—just about every evening, they tend to drink wine only with their meals, and rarely to excess.
WHAT’S IN IT
Eggs: The French make omelets for casual dinners at home and often eat hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise as a side dish at lunch. Eggs also are incorporated into hollandaise and other sauces.
Leeks: Leeks, which are related to onions and garlic (also big ingredients in French cuisine), are used to make vichyssoise and other dishes. The French prize leeks not only for their taste but also for their diuretic properties. Shallots make frequent appearances in French cuisine as well.
Other Vegetables: A typical French main course consists of a meat dish accompanied by two side dishes of vegetables. Zucchini, eggplant, green peas, asparagus, haricots verts (thin green beans), carrots, potatoes, and a variety of mushrooms are among the many options a French chef might choose from. Since most French people buy their vegetables at open-air markets, the selection really depends on the season. Salads play a regular role in France. They are generally served after the meal and might include endives or fennel.
Beverage of Choice: Water
The French are famous for drinking red wine, but there’s another traditional beverage that also keeps them fit and healthy: water. Serving mineral water with meals is common in France, and hydrating while eating is a good strategy for filling up faster.
Yogurt: The French love their dairy products (and that includes butter), often consuming plain yogurt after a meal in lieu of dessert. Yogurt is a source of active probiotic cultures—the “good” bacteria our immune system needs to stay healthy. Like milk, yogurt is high in calcium, vitamins B12 and B2, potassium, and magnesium. Although low-fat and nonfat dairy products have made inroads into French cuisine in recent years, the French prefer good old-fashioned full-fat yogurt and milk. The key, as in everything else about French eating, is portion control. For the French, the main consideration is quantity, not fat content.
Mussels: The French are fond of all sorts of seafood—from calamari to trout to canned sardines. But no one dish typifies the French emphasis on freshness and simplicity like moules marinières, a simple preparation of mussels with garlic, onions, parsley, and white wine.
Herbs and Spices: The French are known for their subtle flavorings. The most common seasonings in French cuisine are rosemary, tarragon, marjoram, sage, and thyme. A “greatest hits” of French seasonings is herbes de Provence, a mixture of herbs such as rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, thyme, and lavender. You can find it in most grocery stores. Fleur de sel is a famous French sea salt used throughout the country.
Meat and Poultry: A big meat dish is often the centerpiece of the main meal of the day in France: foie gras, chicken, beef, lamb—whatever happens to show up on the plate (and it could be just about anything). But even though some of these are rather fatty meats, they usually account for a small portion of the meal, and there will always be several side dishes accompanying them.
Cooking Oil of Choice: Butter
The French aren’t afraid of cooking with full-fat, artery-clogging butter instead of oil. Their fearlessness goes along perfectly with their anti-dieting ethos: eat whatever you want, provided it’s in moderation. Although they do cook with butter every day, they aren’t likely to eat gobs of it on one chunk of bread after another before dinner is even served.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
The French take great pride in the art of cookery and tolerate no shortcuts. In addition to the following cooking techniques, broiling, grilling, and the very advanced flambéing are commonly used in the French kitchen.
Baking and Roasting: The French use the dry heat of an oven to prepare a number of meat dishes. They roast meat uncovered at high temperatures, reducing the heat gradually as the meat cooks.
Braising: The French cook many foods in liquids that have been flavored with wine, meat stock, or vegetable juices. This adds nuance and depth without adding unnecessary fat.
French-Frying: The French do fry foods, but not in the deep oil that we might associate with “French fries.” Instead, they shallow-fry in a skillet, usually using olive oil or another oil that is low in saturated fat. Because they never fry in lard or oils that are high in saturated fat, the French version of frying actually bears a closer resemblance to sautéing.
HOW THEY EAT IT
They have a healthy attitude toward food.
So how can the French indulge in such heavy foods and still stay so slim and heart-healthy? According to Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, it all boils down to the French attitude toward food. The French eat for pleasure and only in moderation.
The French believe that deprivation leads to imbalance and an unhealthy preoccupation with food. Instead of starving themselves one day and pigging out the next, they eat small portions of a wide range of foods 365 days a year. They also shun “fake” diet foods, preferring small quantities of high-fat foods over massive quantities of low-fat (but not zero-calorie) foods.
They structure their meals.
To prolong the pleasure of dining, the French break up their meals into multiple courses. Dinner often consists of four courses and spans two or three hours, and families still dine together as regularly as they did fifty years ago. A typical dinner consists of a starter (perhaps raw vegetables, or crudités), a main course, a salad, a cheese course, and a little dessert. The French also make a point of eating at a nicely laid table (instead of on a TV tray), with a tablecloth, cloth napkins, and real china.
This emphasis on structure and ceremony also applies to the timing of meals in France. People try to eat at roughly the same times every day, and they discourage any activity that threatens to spoil the pleasure of their meals.
They eat at a slow pace.
Despite the explosion of fast-food chains in France over the past several decades, the French still believe that food should be enjoyed while sitting at a table and without any distractions. (Most French cars don’t have cup holders, because the French believe it’s a sacrilege to drink coffee while driving!) So despite the sky-high fat content of many French meals, their slow, deliberate dining methods often mean that they consume fewer calories than Americans do. For me, the pace of their meal exemplifies all that is good about French cuisine. I will never forget a breakfast I had one summer in Juan-les-Pins, in the south of France. The entire breakfast consisted of café au lait, a toasted baguette, brie, and some jam—which took me nearly two and a half hours to consume! Instead of wolfing down the food, I focused on people-watching, reading, and soaking up the sun. It was among the most enjoyable meals of my life. And despite the decadence of the food I was eating, my caloric intake per minute was much lower than in an average American breakfast.
They indulge, but always in moderation.
Quality over quantity is the name of the game. Portion sizes in U.S. restaurants are much larger than those in French restaurants, according to one study that compared restaurants in Paris and Philadelphia. And buffets, especially of the all-you-can-eat variety, are virtually unknown in Paris. In French homes, too, people eat smaller portions of richer foods.
HOW THEY BURN IT
Inefficiencies built into everyday life—such as shopping for groceries on the way home from work every day, as the French do—can actually make you healthier in the long run. Walking to the market every day will ensure that you get at least some exercise. This tradition also helps keep fattening snack foods out of reach when those midnight cravings strike. The French shop when they are out of food; they do not load the pantry for several months at a time. Because they shop so frequently, the French buy plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other perishables. And they try not to shop when hungry. Also, as in many of the 5-Factor World Diet countries, the French are less dependent on their cars than Americans are. They walk, cycle, or take public transportation to conduct much of their daily business.
Breakfast: For breakfast, a typical French person might have a brioche or croissant with butter or jam and a café au lait or hot chocolate.
Lunch: In a study that tracked the eating habits of fifty blue-collar workers in Paris and Boston, the French participants consumed 60 percent of their day’s calories before 2:00 P.M.1 On weekends and special occasions, the French might have an elaborate, multicourse dinner; the rest of the time, lunch is the most important meal of the day. On a busy weekday, a French person might eat a simple lunch of salade niçoise with onion soup, ratatouille, or a ham, cheese, and tomato sandwich on a toasted baguette. Mineral water is usually the only beverage the French drink at lunchtime.
Dinner: During the week, dinner tends to be light and easy to digest. On special occasions, it’s broken up into several distinct courses. It might start with a bowl of onion soup, followed by a main course of coq au vin with haricots verts and new potatoes. A green salad is generally served after the main course. The meal might end with a cheese plate and/or dessert.
• Choose your meals carefully and eat at roughly the same times every day.
• Prize quality over quantity. Worry less about the content of your meals than about how much you eat. Everything in moderation is the French key to success.
• Do your daily errands on foot.
• Buy foods as you need them, keeping your focus on fresh and seasonal foods. Eat a wide variety of local fruits and vegetables throughout the year.
• Savor the moment, from the flavors, aromas, and aesthetics of your meals to the company you dine with. Take your time and enjoy!
1. “7 Secret Ways French Women Stay Slim,” Cosmopolitan, February 2003.