In a culture of rising obesity, we Americans have become fascinated with the concept of the French diet. Books about how French women maintain their figures fly off the bookstore shelves with increasing speed. It seems like these women have it all—a carefree, fulfilling diet and a stick-thin figure—but the reality is not as simple or pleasant as those authors want you to believe. Overall, the culture in metropolitan France is more concerned with healthy eating, but what’s left unspoken is the sometimes unhealthy obsession some French women have with their weight.
The golden rule of the French way of eating is équilibre, or balance. French women make sure to cram as many vegetables as possible into their diets for the fiber and nutrition, but they make room on their plates for a little bit of every food group throughout the day. Nutritionists and dermatologists stress the importance of an intake of as many vitamins and minerals as possible and warn of the health problems that result from poor nutrition. Eating a little bit of everything in moderation—getting the most nutrients per calorie—is a big reason French women can consume so much food yet stay so thin.
To be fair, access to high-quality food is not a given in the United States. In fact, the sad reality is that most of the time, it is difficult, to find affordable fresh and organic foods in the states, especially outside the major cities. This is another way in which French eating naturally triumphs. Many French families make a point of going to their neighborhood outdoor markets at least once a week to buy locally made cheeses, fresh meat and organic produce. In larger metropolitan areas, there are dairy and meat shops, as well as the infamous boulangeries.
French women make sure to eat each meal every day; snacking in between is discouraged. Generally, this means a pastry and coffee in the morning; vegetables, meat and starch in the afternoon; and a light dinner. As an extra trick, at the end of each meal many women will drink an espresso or eat a yogurt, both of which are diuretics.
French women maintain their figures in often unspoken and arguably unhealthy ways. The aforementioned method of eating does not necessarily come naturally to many women. In fact, it’s almost socially encouraged that French women regularly talk about their weight and how well they are staying thin. My former host mom once told me how her friend “ate only cabbage for a week,” looking very impressed, as if this were an important accomplishment. If you listen, French women everywhere are talking about their régimes (diets) and how they’ve cut out sweets or cheese or entire meals. While living there, I sensed that even young girls at dinner parties had an unspoken competition going. As soon as one girl said she’d had enough to eat, all of them suddenly felt the same way. Let’s also not forget that one of the most popular appetite suppressants in France is cigarettes.
Generally, French women do have better eating habits, and they have the health and the figures to prove it. They eat very carefully; after all, preparing nutritious meals and eating the right amount of each food group takes a lot of work. And although dieting is rewarded in France, if you like to eat (maybe more than you should), you aren’t considered gluttonous—you’re simply a gourmand.