Women in France don’t get fat…right?

September 15, 2010 in France

The numbers have been slowing creeping upwards on the scale–but they’re in kilos, so they mean very little to someone who worries in pounds. Even so, my skinny jeans are feeling a bit TOO skinny—and I know that all those three-course meals, cheese plates and pains aux chocolats have to go somewhere.

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But French women don’t get fat. And I’m living in France, eating French food, drinking French wine and inhaling plenty of French secondhand smoke—so that whole staying-svelte-no-matter-what-thing applies to me, right? Unhealthy eating habits and a few extra pounds are as American as apple pie—but I’m sure they get checked at French customs.

I know I could check the scale increase by eliminating alcohol, cutting out refined sugar and putting together a strict gym regime, but I’ve (quite easily and quickly) adopted the French attitude that working out is unnecessary. If all these French girls can squeeze into their size 36 jeans without a gym membership, why shouldn’t I be allowed to allot my gym budget to sauvignon blanc and fancy lingere?

I went straight to Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat to find out how an American girl can survive (skinnily) in France.

“If you bring American eating habits to France, yes, you will gain weight,” Mireille said. “I got fat on French pastries and had to re-learn the French ways of eating. It takes time to form new habits so go slowly and change just a few things at a time. For starters, maybe try focusing on eating slowly and mindfully, in several courses, and drinking lots of water. Lower your portion sizes gradually, bit by bit, and pay attention to your hunger cues as you do so. If you’re eating slowly and mindfully, you’ll realize that you need a lot less than you are used to. Fortunately, eating out in France is easier as the portion sizes are naturally smaller, and this helps re-calibrate your expectations.”

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It’s hard to pay attention to hunger cues when a gorgeous hunk of baguette and cheese is staring you in the face, or the dessert menu is tempting you with chocolat fondant and homemade chantilly. And how are you supposed to drink a lot of water when the French are so averse to ice cubes? But I do agree with Mireille when it comes to eating out in France: portion sizes are much more realistic, whereas in America I would rarely be able to finish my plate.

Even though my stars-and-stripes eating habits cause me to overindulge, there has to be something that we do better than the French, right?

“Americans are naturally inquisitive, open and love sharing, which is a real advantage,” Mireille explained. “They’re not afraid to ask questions about how to cook a new ingredient. The French are sometimes embarrassed to ask if they don’t know how to prepare something, but Americans have no such qualms. This is helpful when embracing new eating habits because women can learn to cook unfamiliar foods more easily and also share their knowledge with others.”

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My goal of trying one new recipe and one new restaurant a week is right in line with Mireille’s perception of eager-to-learn Americans. Even though I’m willing to try new things, there’s been one tough adjustment: the concept of 9 p.m. (or later) dinner reservations. Sorority house dinner was served at 5 p.m. every night, and I’m used to Sunday suppers at my grandma’s house no later than 6 p.m.

“The French traditionally eat dinner very late,” Mireille told me. “Just try making a dinner reservation in Paris for earlier than 8 p.m. And even at 8 p.m., you’d be the first person there. But I have found in recent years that I actually prefer eating a little earlier—more like 7:30 p.m.—so that my food has more time to digest before bedtime. It’s a balance, though. One trap people can fall into with eating dinner too early is, they’re hungry again by 9 or 10 p.m. and fall victim to the siren call of a “bed-time snack”—an all-too-common phenomenon in the U.S. The other difference of eating later in France is, with the slower progression of French meals, people have more time to digest during the course of the meal and eat less overall. They don’t stuff themselves and then go straight to bed on a bursting stomach.”

Merci beaucoup to Mireille for answering my questions–be sure to check out her latest book, the French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook!

  • Anonymous

    One thing I have a feeling will be hard for me to get used to when I’m in Paris is the lateness of the dining. I’m like you–an early diner. I’m going to have to snack a lot, methinks.

  • Because the food is so good in Latin America I have to make a conscious effort to not clean my plate and often I’ll only eat half of my meal. I have learned that I will not starve and if I’m hungry afterwards I can also have a snack.

    But it’s so hard when the food is so good :)

  • I was really upset that I got during my short trip to Paris a few years ago because I was looking forward to eating some delicious French food. The only thing I hate were some plain pringles and my drink of choice was just water. It was heartbreaking. I’ll have to remember not to overindulge too much when I go there.

  • Such an interesting post!!! I still think I would gain a hundred pounds if I lived in Paris even if I ate slower haha.

  • My mom lived in Europe for a few years after college and really got on the dining late routine, after having spent so much time in Spain (Madrid) and France (Paris). So my brothers and I got used to eating dinner at 9 or 10PM. It was normal, at our house (Berkeley, CA). And that was all good while we were all active athletes as kids and young adults. But boy when I quit working out in my mid-twenties did my eating habits ever catch up with me! It’s been hell learning to eat earlier, and lighter. And slower. I’ve not been too successful, so, rather than fight my bad Euro-American habits, I’ve started working out again. Problem solved. I can eat virtually whatever I want, whenever I want, and not worry about the consequences.

  • Oh honey, I feel your pain! I’ve adjusted to the hour, and the portion sizes, and not eating in between meals. EXCEPT when there’s something I just have to try because my life would not be fulfilled without it! My pounds haven’t changed (or kilos)…but for some odd reason, my body has changed. One day I think it’s the wine, the next the cheese…and the next….the wonderful, not sickly sweet chantilly that begs me (on its knees) to imbibe. I’ve been here nearly two years…I need to adjust. Quickly!

  • Anonymous

    Exactly! Even though portion sizes are much more reasonable in France, it’s still hard to ration myself throughout a three- to four-course meal. I want to finish every course, but sometimes that’s just not necessary!

  • Anonymous

    I can definitely give you plenty of French foodie tips–it’s the best part of France!

  • Anonymous

    Believe me, I try to slow down and it still doesn’t help. I just hate leaving any of that deliciousness on my plate!

  • Anonymous

    Luckily, there is the possibility of a “gouter”–while it’s mostly meant for children, it’s acceptable to grab a snack around 4 p.m. here. And there are tons of great (albeit not so healthy) snack foods around Paris–bakeries and creperies are open all day!

  • Anonymous

    Thank God! What a hardship to eat French pastries to tide me over until I can eat a meal, though, huh? 😉

  • I cannot wait to hear about the new dishes you get to eat and prepare! How do the french stay so skinny? Do they eat smaller portions than us America’s?

  • Candicewalsh

    Great post, and never realized French women don’t believe in working out, hahaha. I think small portions is a huge problem for me, I always feel insanely guilty if I don’t finish whatever’s on my plate…no matter how full I am.

  • Anonymous

    I never minded when I was little, but now that I buy and cook all my food myself, I hate throwing anything out! It feels like such a waste. There’s no “doggy bag” culture in France either, so you either eat it or you don’t–so your appetite better meet the portion size!

  • Eurotrip Tips

    Great post! It’s true that the French have a whole different way of eating that we do. It does take bit of a getting used to.

    Otherwise, I love your outfit… You’re the first traveller that doesn’t look like at all like a traveller. Very chic!

  • Anonymous

    Merci beaucoup! I hate dressing like a “traveler”–so I usually just wear what I would any other day!

  • LeslieTravel

    Great article! The photos of French food are making me hungry. I see your point… 😉

  • I think your plan of trying a new recipe and new restaurant each week is perfect…

    Living with a host family in France years ago, I used to be ashamed somewhat that I was the only person who reached for the chocolate instead of the fruit at the end! Oh well, I’m sure I played into lots of stereotypes, but my goodness! That chocolate…

    what would happen if you just ate what you wanted and then reevaluated again in a few months?

  • Anonymous

    Right?! It’s hard to resist!

  • Anonymous

    So funny, last night I watched a movie with my host mom and while she ate one square of a chocolate bar for dessert, I ate half the bar! Stereotypes at its finest…
    I pretty much have been just eating what I want, and I figure I’ll get back into my oh-so-American diet and workout habit when I get home.

  • I really enjoyed this post and I shared it with my girlfriend, who also liked it. I spent about a month traveling around France as part of a year-long trip to Europe. The women there really do have a sort of unexplainable allure. In fact, I really didn’t see a heavy girl until I left for Spain. Of course, that may well have been because I stayed in hostels and nobody can afford to eat properly :-)

    The French do also take forever to eat. They sort of tend to enjoy their food and the whole experience of eating in general. I had many a long meal plus wine with friends in Marseille. Ahhh, I am missing France now.

  • Anonymous

    I think the way they eat is much more important than what they eat. They take the time to savor and enjoy their food, instead of just stuffing something down in front of the computer. It’s such a more enjoyable and healthier experience! Glad you like the post!

  • ZaikasMa

    There is a term in french for not finishing all your food… to leave you meal with a sense of yearning… I believe. Does anoyone know what it is. thanks

  • Pingback: Why the French don’t celebrate Thanksgiving — C'est Christine()

  • We didn’t have much money to enjoy 3 course meal most of the time, thankfully. But I’m wondering. Eating slower… does it mean French women don’t finish the meal they have on their plate? Or the smaller portion (compare to US portion) is enough measure to stay slim?

  • Anonymous

    I think the smaller portion is huge. I worked in a restaurant in France, and it weirded me out at first that most plates were completely finished when I cleared them. I was used to leaving food on my plate at home–but then I realized the portion sizes were just much more reasonable! It wastes less food AND it helps keep you slimmer–win win!

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