“How do the French stay so skinny?”
She asked between bites of crêpe, flicking croissant crumbs from her shirt. Nutella lined her lips and chin, alongside a splotch of raspberry jelly reminiscent of a macaron she had eaten earlier that afternoon.
She wasn’t the first American to ask me this question, or the second, or the seventh. I’ve asked myself this question at least as many times as it’s been asked of me.
The idea of this “French paradox” first became popular in the 1980s, calling attention to the French’s low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite their high-saturated fat diets. The meaning of the phrase has since expanded to include a variety of other health measures that the French surprisingly excel at — both in consideration of their diets and in comparison to Americans. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff of Harvard Medical School, for example, the French tend to weigh less, and live longer, than do Americans.
Various scientific studies have been conducted to account for this paradox, with a range of possible conclusions. Based on a few of these studies and my own observations from a semester of living in Paris, here are a few suggestions of how to live more paradoxically yourself.
1. Eat smaller portions.
As a post-dinner treat one night, my host mom presented me with three ice cream options: a Magnum ice cream bar, a small paper cup of licorice-flavored ice cream and a larger plastic container of amareno. I hesitated to choose the amareno; it seemed like more ice cream than I wanted to eat in one sitting. But it was the flavor that most intrigued me, and so as my host mom started clearing dishes from the table, I dug in. It was only after she returned to the dining room and burst out laughing that I realized the amareno was not an individual portion size — for a French person. In her eyes, I had eaten directly out of a quart of ice cream.
A 2003 article in the journal Psychological Science describes how portions in French cookbooks, as well as those in restaurants and grocery stores, are 25 percent smaller than those in American ones. With smaller portion sizes, the French consume more reasonable amounts of food in one sitting. From my understanding, the French language doesn’t even provide a way to say “I’m full.” In my first few weeks in Paris, my host mom asked if I wanted any more food before we cleared the dinner table. I responded, “Je suis pleine,” which literally translates to “I am full.” She corrected: “On ne dit pas ça en français.” (“We don’t say that in French.”) It was only later that I learned “Je suis pleine” is taken to mean “I am pregnant,” and that to express that you don’t want more food, you would simply say “Je n’ai plus faim.” (“I am no longer hungry.”) The French don’t eat until they’re full; they eat until they’re no longer hungry.
2. Eat slowly.
I’ve turned down dinner invitations when I didn’t have at least three hours to dedicate to the meal. French restaurants don’t seem to turn over tables multiple times in one night; one seating suffices. The wait between courses can take upwards of half an hour, and the waiter doesn’t bring the check until the customer asks for it — even if he has cleared the dishes and confirmed that the customer doesn’t want coffee or dessert. Though these multiple-course, slow-paced meals frustrated me at first, I came to appreciate them. They forced me to take a break for an entire evening, rather than overscheduling myself and rushing through the meal to get to my next activity. In this more relaxed mindset, I’ve perhaps enjoyed the food (and company) more than I would have otherwise, feeling more satiated in stomach and in spirit.
Additionally, studies have shown that it can take up to 20 minutes for the brain to process that the body is full — so even if you don’t have three hours, try to set aside at least 20 minutes.
3. Eat purely.
My host family cooks with real butter and sweetens their food with real sugar. My host mom supplies her house parties with regular – not diet – sodas. I’ve never seen packaging advertising “Half the fat!” or “75% fewer calories.” Enjoying more satisfying foods at each meal, the French feel less of an impulse to splurge on overly fatty, buttery, sugary foods for dessert and late-night snacks. They don’t feel as though they’re restricting their diets throughout the day — and consequently don’t feel the urge to reward themselves or “cheat” at the end of it. Indeed, a 2008 study published in the journal Neuroimage found that the brain responds differently to artificial versus natural sweeteners. In eating more natural sweeteners, the French may better process feelings of reward that curb cravings for sweetness, and so consume fewer sweets. The non-caloric sweetness of artificial sweeteners confuses the brain and may actually create the impulse to consume more sweets.
4. Eat defined meals.
When my host brother comes home from school, he sits down at the table with his mom for un goûter (a snack). She boils two cups of tea and lays out two packets of cookies. Once the tea is drunk and the cookies are eaten, snack time is over. There’s no lingering box of Cheez-Its that you could maybe grab one more handful of before you register you’re full; there’s no family-sized bag of pretzels you could scarf in its entirety while watching TV. My host mom does have a “value-pack” bag of madeleines, but it stays in the cabinet until she wants to eat some. Then, she’ll portion a reasonable serving size onto a plate and bring it to the table. She’ll sit and eat before moving on to read a book or watch a movie. Culinary experiences are deliberate and defined.
As described in a 2005 paper published in the journal Obesity Research, participants who unknowingly ate from self-refilling bowls lost sight of how much they were eating. Without the visual cues of the bowl emptying to indicate that they had eaten a full portion size, these participants ate an average of 73 percent more than those eating from regular bowls.
5. If you treat yourself, do it early in the day.
For breakfast, my host brothers ate bread slathered in Nutella, washed down with hot chocolate — but post-dinner, they treated themselves to a piece of fruit or a cup of yogurt. Tiramisu, pain au chocolat, and beignets have all made appearances at the breakfast table; the post-dinner guest is the fruit bowl.
Of course, American breakfasts often feature sugar, in the form of cereals and muffins, pancakes and waffles and French toast. The difference is that our desserts are more often than not just as sugary as our breakfasts — if not more so.
A 2012 study published in the journal Steroids found that a group who consumed a high carbohydrate and protein breakfast including dessert lost more weight over the course of 16 weeks than a group who consumed a low carbohydrate breakfast. The researchers concluded that the high carbohydrate and protein and dessert breakfast may have reduced hunger and cravings. So if you need a sugary treat at some point in the day, try to eat it earlier rather than later.
This isn’t to say that French food culture isn’t without detriments, or that the American one isn’t without merits. Finding vegan, vegetarian and other diet-restricted options, for example, is generally much more difficult in major French cities than it is in major American cities. And this isn’t to say that other factors aren’t affecting French skinniness — factors that aren’t so healthy, like smoking.
But maybe the paradox isn’t that the French are skinny. Maybe it’s that Americans, in our mentality of experimentation and efficiency, are overemphasizing scientifically tested and quick and easy fixes to our health problems. Maybe, in analyzing the chemical compositions of food to invent ones without calories, and in creating diet plans to lose weight quickly, we’re underestimating the importance of cultural factors. Perhaps a big part of the solution to our health problems is much simpler — and more French — than we think.