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.
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.”
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.”
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!