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Food in France

Do you remember this book? It was charming and entertaining, but also IRKSOME, because sometimes it fell into an unconsciously entitled tone that assumed SUCH luxurious wealthiness—-it felt a little GOOPy, if you know what I mean. You know GOOP?:

“For the perfect snack after my zen-yogatation-pilates class with my Swedish muscle-elongation-technician, I like to take Irish butter hand-milled by unfreckled virgins and lovingly touch the edge of the pat to the baby-tender rind of a truffle shaving. (I always make sure my truffle has been nose-dug by Bolivian children, as pig nose-dug truffles tend to bruise!) Serve chilled.”

Nothing against The Pepper Potts! GP is one of my very favorites to go see in the movies. Shakespeare in Love, anyone? The Talented Mr. Ripley? Sliding Doors? She’s great. But I can’t manage to not eye-roll the GOOP thing.

I hope I win the lottery, sure, why not, but I ALSO hope that when I am a squid-zillionaire, I do not suddenly come to believe my butt needs 50 dollar panties just because I can technically afford ’em. NO ONE’S BUTT needs 50 dollar panties. If you think your butt needs 50 dollar panties, consider the idea that your opinion of your own butt may be too high.

But French Women Don’t Get Fat didn’t just have a socio-economic assumption tone problem for me.

I was ruffled at how it mocks people who “change clothes to exercise” when we could simply walk more, take the stairs, etc. That’s nice, said I, if you are an ectomorph blessed with a good metabolism and ALSO an easy temperament that can maintain a steady-flatline of non-extreme emotions. But it is CRAZY advice to give a high strung endomorph. If I don’t work out, hard, almost every day, I weep at every commercial with a lost dog in it, froth and scream when frustrated, lose the ability to fall sleep, and have rage-splosions with yelling sauce.

I ate this in France.

If I work out? I am SO MUCH MORE PLEASANT TO LIVE WITH. (I am not claiming it makes me actually pleasant to live with, mind, just COMPARATIVELY pleasant.) My inner twitch-freak needs the stress relief and the good brain chemicals you get from hard cardio and yoga in 105 degrees.

Also, I come from a line of endomorphs who bestowed the genetic blessing of a sluggish, farty, walrussy metabolism. I gain weight verrrryyy easily, and losing a pound requires two weeks of virtue, plus an act of Congress and the blessing of the Pope.

Second, I was mad about the soup recipe. Remember? It was essentially a leek-ed out, fresh v/s canned stock version of the Cabbage Soup Diet soup, and in my faulty memory, the advice was something like, “After a meal where you indulge in snails and suckling pig and mousse, eat nothing but this soup for two days.” Which is basically what the Cabbage Soup Diet says to do, too, except it does not specifically mention suckling pigs as a soup-fast-catalyst.

I frothed about these things (I probably had not worked out the day I read it!) but in what may be FAULTY retrospect, I recall a lot of it being charming, with good recipes, and she described traditional French food culture. which looks a little like this:

I ate this in France, too.

Eat simple, fresh, real things that are made of food instead of complicated processed things that are made to smell foodlike via chemical additives. \

NEVER give up eating delicious things that make you happy, but permanently change your idea of what a portion looks like.

Add movement to your day in any way you possibly can.

Sit down for meals, and let it be a LEISURELY event where the pleasure of food is equalled by the pleasure in good company and conversation.

Do not snack.

Don’t worry/fret/dwell/compute/obsess about food/ weight/body image so much.

I decided to try and live this while in France, even though I knew, from ENDLESS EXPERIENCE, that I would gain weight. On vacation, I drink wine every day. I have dessert, sometimes twice. I gain weight. But I was in Provence, yo, and not ABOUT to eat a protein bar— not when there is duck foie gras with fig jam.

But we DID try to emulate French food culture — we took our basket and walked to the market every day, sat down together for meals in multiple small courses,and ate tons of fruit and olives and fresh vegetables with our crepes and (beautiful) cheeses and baguettes and pain au chocolate and ice cream and local wine and gratins and tapenades. We walked miles every day, but I didn’t have time or a location for a formal workout. Our meals were long and—*burp*—-substantial, but we rarely bothered to pause for a snack. Too much to see and do.

When I got home, I discovered I had actually LOST 2 pounds.

I ate an obscene number of these in France.

What the WHAT? For me, losing 2 pounds takes 4 weeks of serious virtue. How did I lose 2 in a French Bachanalia of meringues and macaroons? I have never ACCIDENTALLY lost weight in my life.

So, the reason French Women Don’t Get Fat must be because France is MAGIC. Either that, or:

Theory 1—the actual FOOD itself.

It was all so minimally processed! (It is true that processed foods are sneaking into France, and at the same time, the percentage of French women and men and most especially children who are overweight is very much on the rise.) But we worked hard to avoid anything processed and ate very local and very fresh, but we also ate very, VERY much. But maybe it was eating such REAL, unprocessed food?

Theory 2 — The method.

We ate quite heartily at meals but were much too busy between meals to snack. And the meals themselves were leisurely, non-gobbling, sit down affairs, often with multiple small courses and all during we chatted and de-stressed. Also, because I was on vacation, I didn’t think about or obsess about calories. And while I didn’t have yoga classes or an elliptical, we walked a lot, up mountains and such. Was it the method? Does sitting down to a human dinner with humans, and eatign slowly, equal lower calories over all while FEELING luxurious and feasty?

Maybe a combo? And is it realistic to try to and RECREATE that kind of eating HERE? DO need to reread the Mireille Guiliano book? Did you read it? Can it be done in North America on a reasonable, human budget? What do you think?

16 comments to Food in France

  • Gaylin

    Food allergies already limit what I can eat so I eat generously of what I am able too. This means I already eat very few processed foods, cross-contamination is a bitch in manufactured foods. My monthly budget for food for one is probably higher than it is for most 2 people, allergic to all grains = expensive.

    I don’t have a car so walking is a necessary part of life, especially in the summer when buses are hot and stinky and when I am on a bus I want to hand out samples of deodorant to all and sundry.

    I have decided that napping is a part of a healthy diet . . . I nap about 4 times a week.

    And I eat chocolate, heck I am not allergic to it, it must be good for me! Now I think I will go out for fries for lunch with ice cream for dessert. Once in awhile, splurge!

  • Martha

    GOOP is stoopid and my opinion of MY butt is that it is too LOW. Hence the Fruit of the Loom drawers in my drawers.

    I think the Method probably does work in France. A) because clearly France is magic and 2) because the food satiates you to your soul. Oh, and C) you don’t DRIVE everywhere in France. We even drive up to our FOOD here.

    Here in the States, we have to cardio-up just to stay even. We are a teenaged country compared to Europe and it seems we eat that way. We probably have more zits than those Parisians do, too. Humph.

  • JulieB


    I lived in France the first year I was married. Since that was BC – Before Children – I didn’t really worry about my weight. but looking back I had _lost_ weight that year. It is the _Combination_. We didn’t have a car, but we got to Spain twice, the Canary Islands once, and Germany 3 times. Of course, we were also Poor, Poor, Poor, (two of us lived on one grad-student’s income) but we ate pate almost every day for lunch, we always had a fresh “grand pain” (a baguette was too small for the whole day) and we drank like little fishies.

    We _walked_, we savored our meals, and the pace of life was Not An Issue. There is way too much bombardment allowed in our culture of advertising and technology. Back then, France was outpacing us, because everyone had Minitel, and we were only just getting AOL. 😉

    Enjoy good food. Get rid of the car if possible. (I’m convinced that’s why I can’t shed my last 15 pounds. I am currently striving to recreate that lifestyle. My husband misses it too. He lived in _Spain_ before we were married. That’s Uber-France healthy, yet they party like no one’s business. I had to _beg-off_ and I was 25!).

  • Jan

    Not sure if you’re after a science-y discussion, but a few quick things which have evidence behind them. (Please feel free to delete if this is way off topic!!)

    Distracted and fast eating leads to overall higher calorie consumption. The slow cooking and eating method, which invite mindfulness and an ability to derive comfort from people and conversation, rather than just food, generally decrease calorie intake.

    Second, there’s good evidence that people automatically select the amount of food they’ll eat according to its weight. Processed foods shift the calories per pound upward. The more processed, the more people gain. (If you doubt the principle, consider how easy it would be to consume 200 calories of corn-derived high-fructure corn syrup versus 200 calories of corn on the cob. Also consider what your waste matter looks like after, because some of those calories aren’t actually absorbed in the unprocessed food.) If you want to read more about using calorie density and the role of unprocessed foods, this page is pretty succinct. http://www.forksoverknives.com/the-calorie-density-approach-to-nutrition-and-lifelong-weight-management/

    Also, I really enjoyed Wansink’s book. (Mindless Eating.) Bottom line, yes, it is possible to design a lifestyle and eating patterns which make it easier to obtain and keep an ideal weight. This culture makes it harder than it needs to be, but it’s possible. I did it for 5 years and then I began to slip and ignored the slide. That changed this January, and I’m so glad to be back on track.

  • Two keys for long term weight (and mooditude) mgmt:

    1) Eat _real_ food, not too much at a time (i.e., graze a la le French), mostly plants. h/t Michael Pollan

    2) Aerobic exercise, i.e, that which does not put you into anaerobic heart rate (i.e., not furious cardio), will make body fat (upper & lower) melt away long term. h/t Phil Maffetone. http://philmaffetone.com/aerobic.cfm

    You’ll thank me.

  • Ma chere Joshilyn – isn’t that the best discovery ever? (After sweetened chocolate and the effect of combining butter and flour and then baking it, I mean.)

    A couple of years ago, my then-75-year-old father and I did a weight loss program together, and then went to France for a couple of weeks. We decided to have a great time and worry about the weight when we got home and, exactly like you, discovered that the active tourist in France can eat just about everything and still ditch the pounds.

    I blogged about it and there are some (I hope amusing) stories at calorieneutral.blogspot.com – the Saturday posts from March and April 2011 are about the trip. April 2 has my poor dad’s disastrous Dockers experience going through customs in Bordeaux….

    I’m so glad you had a fabulous trip!

  • You know, I have a very high opinion of you anyway, but with the following line, I now am thinking of you as the High Priestess of Common Sense: “If you think your butt needs 50 dollar panties, consider the idea that your opinion of your own butt may be too high.” All, hail the High Priestess of Common Sense! I have a somewhat lowly opinion of my butt, so if I had $50 to spare, it would not go to my rear end’s clothing needs.

  • Darnit. I just got a new email address, and I cannot get that thing right yet! Don’t mind me, just fixing my email address, so you don’t think I’m some kind of weird spider spambot.

  • Rams

    I blame Henry Ford. French life and cities are designed to be walkable. American towns/suburbs are designed to require a car. It’s a tough plot to beat.

  • Elizabeth

    I had the same experience! I think the slow eating and slow living, actually feeling most of the moments you are in rather than pushing through to the next thing are the keys.

  • Therese

    I agree with Jessica the Celt about this sentence: “If you think your butt needs 50 dollar panties, consider the idea that your opinion of your own butt may be too high.”

    And I think the French Vacation Diet sounds fabulous. That one, I’m willing to try.

    I know that when I’m not sitting at a desk working all day it is easier to not snack and to be active. This desk job is killing me, in more ways than one.

  • Congratulations to you on losing two pounds while on vacation! I think there is something to eating more natural, less procssed foods, and definitely something to getting more physical exercise. I never really realized it before you mentioned it, but I think I may become a little weepy too when I spend too much time sitting around.

    I do think some of the healthy eating proponents are a little insane as far as what they think is feasible for the average person’s grocery budget and time available for obtaining and preparing food. I read an article today that made more sense than most about good eating, it basically suggested not taking a one size fits all appraoch to what style of eating is “good” or “bad” for you and paying attention to how different foods make you feel. I definitely like the more balanced tone it had.

  • liz

    I live this way every summer. Sadly, not in France. But we walk everywhere — to the beach, to a friend’s house, to the beach again — and we hit the farmer’s market twice a week and try to plan meals around what is in season. The pedometer says something crazy like 8 miles a day, and I always come home a few pounds lighter.

    But during the school year, it is the opposite – we drive to school, to baseball practice, to dance class, and it is back to the grocery store for supplies. I ‘formally’ exercise more but walk less, and the pounds always creep back. : (

    So I think it IS possible, but a lot of it depends on what your community is like.

  • Gail

    I think the “French women don’t get fat” thing can only be explained by MAGIC. I basically live the lifestyle described in that book. I live in a small pedestrian-friendly city, and I walk everywhere (With a few exceptions, including right now because there is a heatwave on, even if it is a pathetic UK “heatwave” of like 80 degrees. Despite growing up in GA, I cannot handle walking miles and miles in direct sunlight in hot weather.) If I need food, I walk a little over a mile to the market. I don’t really eat processed food, and I never, ever eat fast food. I take the stairs, even when I am in the sauna of a library and taking the stairs to the fourth floor will make me a bit sweaty (she doesn’t factor sweat into her disdain for people who change clothes to exercise). So yeah, I might maintain my weight while living this lifestyle, but it doesn’t make me thin, either. Maybe if I crossed the Channel, I could get some of this French magic.

  • Jess

    I think it’s losing yourself in magic – even Georgia magic – and forgetting about what you should & shouldn’t eat that creates the whole weight loss thing. Just a theory. I don’t want to lose much weight, but I DO want to go to Europe and test out this whole theory. 😉

    But what I really came here to say is that you have almost ruined novels for me Joshilyn Jackson! I got SO BORED trying to finish a book that by all accounts I should like, but the writing was so cliche and the suspense so undramatic and the plot turns so brittle, that I skimmed ahead to find out what I wanted to know and threw the book against the wall. Philippa Gregory taught me that books could be page turners, but it wasn’t until I found your books that I discovered how to dive into a book and live, breathe, and feel fictional characters and worlds that seemed more alive than my own life. And I feel so pissed when other books can’t do that to me and for me. And so, I will wait for November to pre-order and live again for like, two days. 🙂 Thanks for being amazing!

  • Shelley

    Italy has the same magic, just substitute pasta for foie gras. I attribute weight loss to walking everywhere and the realistic portions served in the restaurants. And of course fat satiates. Can totally do it here, for a reasonable budget, but it takes more time, since walking everywhere is required. And actual chopping and cooking.