This summer I was lucky enough to spend a month traveling in France with my family. My amazing husband surprised us with an incredible itinerary including Paris, the French Riviera, and the beautiful Alps near Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.
For me it was a dream come true; I had fallen in love with France after studying the language in high school. This love affair was solidified in my adult years after reading about the French cuisine, which is among the most celebrated in the world, and the French paradox, which is the well-known fact that the French eat more saturated fat than Americans yet are slimmer and have much lower coronary heart disease death rates.
It’s true that the French cuisine is incredible. The meals we ate at restaurants did not disappoint. We were especially fond of the lunchtime “plate du jour”, which is a discounted three-course meal. The French are fond of eating a proper sit-down meal at lunchtime (appetizer, main, and dessert). As busy Americans, it was a complete shift to relax and enjoy a hearty lunch and pleasant conversation. And it was amazing how much less snacking we did with three square meals a day!
Our plan was to rent apartments whenever possible to have an opportunity to shop and eat locally as is the custom in France. I consider myself a connoisseur of farmers’ markets, and I can honestly say they were the best I have ever seen. The gorgeous produce, fresh cheeses and meats, and fragrant baguettes were indescribably delicious. And the highlight of most every day was walking to the butcher, the baker, and the local produce stand to purchase our food.
What I learned in France about healthy eating surprised me. Even more than the increased availability of beautiful fresh food, I believe the French culture plays a pivotal role in their lower incidence of chronic disease. Of course, food quality matters. The majority of Americans shop at the supermarket where the shelves are packed with thousands of products that resemble food, more than 80 percent of which contain added sugar. The French shop for food daily at local markets and prepare home cooked meals from scratch.
It’s part of French culture to eat smaller portions and skip snacking. They don’t deprive themselves; they simply satisfy their hunger with an adequate meal –especially at lunch. Americans, on the other hand, have become accustomed to eating all day long and supersizing everything. Don’t forget the free Big Gulp refills! Not once did a French server ask us if we wanted a second glass of wine or a refill on coffee. And speaking of coffee, don’t even think about getting a coffee drink “to go” in France. Everywhere we went we saw French people gathered in community (social connection is another important marker of health) savoring one tiny cup of coffee. We also noticed our dinner plates and wine glasses were much smaller than we see in American restaurants. (By the way, purchasing smaller plates for your home is a great hack if you’re trying to eat smaller portions!)
Along with eating less, the French also eat their meals more slowly than we do. They create pleasure around mealtimes by relaxing with family and friends. And they spend time savoring their food. The joy experienced while eating is important to your metabolism. You need to be in a relaxed state for your digestive system to work properly. Eating more slowly also helps you to eat less because your stomach has time to signal your brain that it’s full (this take 20 minutes!). Many Americans have lost the connection between food and true nourishment. We are constantly eating on the go. Eating under stress can make us gain weight for several reasons: We don’t digest our food properly; stress hormones slow metabolism and promote fat storage; and we tend to eat more food when we eat quickly.
Finally, the French use their legs to get around more than their cars. French people walk everywhere; they walk to work, walk to get their groceries, and walk after meals. This helps to keep the metabolism humming. Most Americans spend hours each day commuting to work and school, then driving to the supermarket to fetch a pre-packaged dinner or hitting the drive thru window. It’s possible to create quick and simple real-food dinners. This is one of my specialties so please reach out to me if you need help!
In a nutshell, my big takeaways from France are to eat smaller portions of real food slowly, with community when possible, and to walk more! The trip wasn’t all roses… the French drive like crazy people and smoke too much. But’s that’s another blog post.
Until next time, make every bite count!