Having recently spent a month in France, I have come to the conclusion that the French are sneaky. They eat three-course meals with gorgeous sauces, drink red wine constantly, have no apparent shame availing themselves of those sinful French pastries, p•te, and cheeses, and yet still remain-by American standards-thin. And rarely will you see those French guys or gals sweatily jogging down the boulevard; they just walk about looking very stylish.
If you don’t trust my observational skills, try these stats on for size: Only 11 percent of the French population qualifies as obese, while we almost triple that percentage mark here in the land of plenty. Furthermore, the French eat three times as much saturated animal fat as Americans do and only a third as many die of heart attacks.
I have long heard about this French Paradox, and after a month of fluffy croissants full of almond paste and copious amounts of French rouge du maison, I was certain it was all a bunch of bull. To prove the point, I immediately mounted my bathroom scale upon returning home. Imagine my shock when I discovered that after a month of French gastronomic debauchery (and no organized exercise regimen) I only gained one pound!
So if it isn’t Splenda, no-carb PowerBars, or an obsession with spinning classes, what’s their secret?
I consulted Santa Barbara’s own expert on the subject, Laurence Hauben, herself a lovely Frenchwoman who actually helps people learn about the French way with food in her Market Foray classes (marketforays.com). According to Laurence, it’s all about the lifestyle.
“The French don’t traditionally wolf down a meal at their desk or while commuting in traffic,” she said. “They sit down with family or colleagues at a table, taking the time to relax and share conversation. When you are talking, you are not eating, and because you are relaxed, the hormones released help in the assimilation of calories, unlike the stress hormones we are riddled with here, which trigger hoarding of fat. In other words, eat 800 calories while sitting at a cafe in Paris, and they will get spent. Eat 800 calories while sitting in your car in traffic on the freeway, and most of them will settle in your hips or gut.”
Mireille Guiliano, author of the recent bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat, would no doubt agree with Hauben. In her book, she emphasizes the importance of savoring one’s food and how this directly contributes to a cornerstone of the French diet: portion control. I realize this is a very un-American concept, but it does seem to work. The French way is not about deprivation. Their main dishes are bathed in lush sauces, their desserts are irresistible culinary masterpieces. They make the effort to make sure their food is fresh and flavorful, with the payoff that their satisfaction-and most importantly, their satiation-will come from quality instead of quantity.
According to Hauben, the French Paradox isn’t a paradox at all, but a logical consequence of the traditional French way of life, which is less materialistic, less driven. “We need to slow down, think about our priorities, and ask ourselves what the point is of an expensive kitchen remodel when we don’t take the time to cook, and why we work so hard that we never have time to see the people we love,” she said. “Maybe if we traded some of our discretionary income for discretionary time, that would be the true luxury.”
Taking the time to prepare meals with fresh ingredients, walking to the markets to buy those ingredients, and then actually sitting down with friends and family to savor the meal? Now that’s a start.
“If we want to lose weight, we need to make a choice to enjoy life more,” said Hauben.
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Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at email@example.com and visit his Web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information.