Why French People Are Thin (Hint: It’s Not Their Diet)
This year I’ve been doing some traveling, mostly in Europe. This brought me to some interesting realizations about some cultural differences in eating between Europeans and Americans.
I live in Montreal, which culturally finds itself between Europe and America. Depending where you live in Montreal, it can feel more like you’re in America, or Europe.
I’ve also lived in the USA and traveled there quite a bit. I’ve visited over 25 countries and I’ve been to Europe many times. I’ve been four or five times to France, a couple of times to Eastern Europe, 8 or 9 times to England, a few times to Spain and Italy, and so on.
Whenever I go back and forth between countries, some important differences in eating habits become very apparent to me.
But first, why does it matter?
In America, obesity rates reach over 30% of the population. In France, it’s 11%. The 11% obesity rate in France is caused by the fact that French people are starting to eat more like Americans, because obesity rates used to be only 5.5% in 1995.
In America, 33.8% of the adult population is now considered obese. In 1997 it used to be 19.4%. Keep in mind that we’re talking about obesity here, which means a BMI over 30. For example, for me to become obese, at a height of 5 foot 10 inches, I would have to weigh about 210 pounds.
So even though the French, and other Europeans, are going in the wrong direction with their eating habits, they still have a long way to go to reach the horrendous proportions in America.
So let’s take a look at some important cultural differences.
The Importance of Tradition
In Italy, the cappuccino or caffè latte is something you drink in the morning, for breakfast. At other times of the day you’re supposed to drink black espresso, and only after meals. If you order a caffè latte in the middle of the day in Italy, people will automatically know that you’re not Italian. They will also secretly and sometimes not so secretly laugh at you…
In America of course, once we embraced the caffè latte, or as we call it, the latte, we didn’t attach any traditions around it. Which means people have giant lattes loaded with sugar and calories several times a day!
Traditions in food matter because they keep a certain order to things, and prevent overeating. In England, the “afternoon tea” allowed you to have a cup of tea with something sweet. In America, any time of the day is a good excuse to eat something sweet…
Other traditions that we’ve completely forgotten is the “dessert,” which is supposed to be a special treat that you have after a meal, when you can afford it. In America, dessert is something you eat soon after you wake up in the morning, when you have your giant muffin. It’s also something you eat throughout the day, whenever you feel something remotely close to hunger!
The Sweet Breakfast
As I learned in the book “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” a wonderful exposé of the processed food industry in America, the sweet breakfast is an invention of the cereal manufacturers in the middle of the last century.
Americans have a sweet tooth for breakfast, which is why they usually eat cake for breakfast. Except that they don’t call it cake. Instead, they call it “pancakes with syrup” (cake!), muffin (cake!), or Nutella covered toasts (cake!), or a bowl of sweet cereal with milk (almost cake!).
Recently, I was spending some time with a Czech family, on my last trips to Europe. I noticed how the typical Czech breakfast was nothing but sweet. Typical foods included cold cuts, smoked salmon, savory spreads, with some bread, and some fruits. Many Europeans also like to eat raw vegetables for breakfast, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, to accompany their other breakfast choices.
In most parts of the world, breakfast is not sweet. In Thailand, the typical could include a thick rice porridge, eggs, meat, Chinese dumplings (Dim Sum) and some kind of savory soup. In other Asian countries, there is no clear distinction between breakfast foods and lunch and dinner food.
In France, people are traditionally practically fasting for breakfast. That’s why the word for breakfast (déjeuner) in France actually means the lunch meal. Later, when people got in the habit of having a croissant with a cup of coffee in the morning, a new word was added to describe this new “meal.” It was called “petit déjeuner” or “little breakfast.”
Most French people have very little food for breakfast. Some French people I know, living in Montreal, only eat some fruit and have a cup of coffee for breakfast. A single croissant is also popular to eat for breakfast in France, and dip in your coffee.
In France, snacking is frowned upon. As we’ve seen, French people eat a small breakfast (if they eat at all). Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day, and when time allows, it can drag on for hours and include many courses, with wine. Dinner is typically small and many people only eat a few things for dinner, like yogurt and fruit.
But no matter what French people choose to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, one thing is for sure: snacking is not encouraged and not usually part of the habits taught to children. In France, culturally speaking, parents don’t have this constant obsession and guilt around parenting, which generally leads to more well-behaved children, at least according to American author Pamela Druckerman, who wrote “Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.”
In France, children eat three meals a day and have one snack around 4 p.m. Adults generally don’t have this afternoon snack. Of course, things are changing in France, as more and more people break away with tradition and snack more often. But after a stay in France outside of big cities, and coming back to America, you’d think you were dealing with two separate races of humans: one who only requires to eat 2 or 3 times a day, and one who seemingly must eat every 2 hours to survive! Guess which is which?
This constant snacking is also encouraged by America’s nutritionists and fitness experts, who have for years spoken against eating “big meals that drain your energy” and instead recommended to eat lots of small meals every 2-3 hours, to “keep the metabolism up.” In reality, this eating frequency has no real scientific basis and seemingly doesn’t lead to good results, considering that most of the world goes pretty well on 2 or 3 meals a day, while Americans, with obesity rates pushing 35%, are told to eat more often.
If you ever go to Paris, or on your next trip there, I want you to walk into a Parisian café and order a “jus d’orange” (orange juice). Besides practicing your French, you’ll probably be shocked at how small your glass is! The typical freshly-squeezed orange juice glass in Parisian cafés is 6 ounces, or less than a cup of juice. Then you’ll be mad at me for having to pay a few Euros for that, but at least you’ll have learned an interesting lesson in portion sizes.
Everything in America is bigger. The country. The cars. The food plates. The people. I don’t mind big highways myself and I feel more comfortable driving a Jeep SUV than a Smart ForTwo car. But when it comes to food, portion sizes matter.
The topic of portion sizes as a cue to overeating is explored in depth in the book “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler. Quoting a study done on the popcorn eating habits at movie theaters, “people who were given the big buckets ate an average of 53 percent more than those given medium-size buckets. Give them a lot, and they eat a lot.”
After a recent trip to Europe, I’m writing this article in San Francisco. Staying downtown, I’m noticing everywhere the ubiquitous Starbucks to-go cups. I’m also noticing how everyone walks around with those giant drinks, loaded with milk and sugar, and at how uncommon the smaller sizes are.
Give them a lot, they eat a lot. Give them less, they eat less. And if the food is good, both groups feel equally satisfied.
I don’t have to go in details about this point. Travel to almost any country in the world and you’ll notice how the typical portion sizes are much smaller than in America. Yet, French food is revered throughout the world as the culinary standard upon which all other cuisines are judged. And guess what is the characteristic of gourmet French food: small portions of extremely rich and delicious food.
The problem in America is that people eat large portions of extremely rich foods, which most people think are also extremely delicious as well. The only way to stay lean while eating large portions of food is to eat foods that are naturally low in calories, such as fruits and vegetables.
The Joy of Eating Socially
The movement for “Slow Food” started in the North of Italy, when its founder, Carlo Petrini, found that Italian people were losing their regional cuisine and falling for the fast food culture stemming from America. The movement now promotes local food traditions in over 150 countries.
When we sit down to enjoy long lunches or dinners in company of family, we eat fewer total calories, even though the dishes may contain rich elements such as cream, and be washed down with some wine. Although most of the daily calories may come from a typical long French lunch, the overall caloric intake is lower than in snacking and fast-fooding America.
The industry of processed foods in America came to answer the question that’s on everyone’s mind by 4 p.m. and to which most have no answer. That question is “what’s for dinner?” The disappearance of the family dinner led to the Kraft Dinner and Cookies for dessert, among other of the many processed food choices.
When we take time to eat with friends and family, we focus on our food, we enjoy it more, and we’ll be less tempted after to binge on sugary and fatty snacks to compensate. Is it time to bring back this tradition to this continent?
The Quality of Ingredients
The obsession over ingredient quality is palpable in France. I once sat through a very heated discussion between two French men, who were discussing the best way to cook a snail, and of course, where to source them.
In France, there’s a deep concern about the area where the food is from, whether it’s wine or other foodstuffs. It’s called “le terroir” in French and it’s fundamental to understanding the somewhat complex system of rules that rule over certain specific food products in the country.
In France, for a cheese to be labeled as “Roquefort,” it not only has to be made using very specific ingredients, but also has to come from a specific area.
Of course, French wines are a famous example. It would be heresy in France (and, in fact, illegal) to label a wine as “Champagne” if the product is mere sparkling wine coming from any other region than the region of Champagne in the north of France.
Although all of the labeling laws make it difficult for some people to innovate, it does help preserve tradition and purity in food products. This comes from a cultural instinct to seek the best ingredients possible and make the recipe in a very specific way before you can call your product “genuine.”
Finally, a less obvious cultural difference in eating between Americans and Europeans is something that I refer to as “food angst.”
In America, everybody has access to an abundance of rich and delicious foods (that unfortunately have the side effect of making you fat and unhealthy) at a very low cost. At the same time, no one is more obsessed about food, dieting and “control” than Americans.
Watch a French cook prepare his food and you’d be shocked at how little consideration they put into the amount of salt and butter they throw in their concoctions. Yet, in spite of eating such calorie-dense foods, French people will eat fewer total calories than Americans, without even thinking about it.
Maybe you’ve read the book “Eat, Pray, Love” or have seen the movie. For me the dialogue that most represents this food angst that I’m talking about is from the movie Eat, Pray, Love, when in the Barber shops Italian people discuss these cultural differences.
Julia Roberts: I feel so guilty. I’ve been in Rome for three weeks and all I’ve done is learn a few Italian words and eat!”
Man on Barber chair: “You feel guilty because you’re American! You don’t know how to enjoy yourself!
Julia Roberts: I beg your pardon?
Man on Barber chair: It’s true. Americans know entertainment. But they don’t know pleasure… I’m serious. Listen to me! You want to know your problem? Americans… you work too hard, you get burned out! Then you come home and spend the whole weekend in your pajamas in front of the TV! But you don’t know pleasure… You have to be told you’ve earned it! You see a commercial that says “It’s Miller time!” and you say… “That’s right! Now I’m going to buy a six-pack! And you drink the whole thing and you wake up the next morning and you feel terrible! But… an Italian doesn’t need to be told. He walks by a sign that says “you deserve a break today!” And he says, “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m planning on taking a break at noon… to go over to your house, and sleep with your wife!” (laughs).
Of course, the quote is taking quite out of context, but I think you understand my point…
Instead of having so much guilt over food, we should learn to enjoy ourselves when we actually indulge, and then forget about it. Think about food and enjoy it when it’s time to eat, and then enjoy the rest of your time not thinking about food.
I love American and I love Europe, and I feel blessed living somewhere that seems like a middle point between the two worlds. My English friend Michael used to say “I never had a bad day in America,” and I think this short sentences summarizes what I love most about this country.
The dynamism, the innovation, and energy of America also has another side, which is playing itself out in the obesity crisis. Maybe it’s time to return to some sense of tradition and we might start making a bigger dent in the obesity crisis.
How about you? Am I far off in my observations? What have you found to be true? Leave your comments below…
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.
Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.
79 COMMENTS ON THIS POST
Comments are closed for this post.
Yes, Oui! I completely agree with you about eating in Europe.
When I was in Paris, a typical day was a pastry for breakfast, omelet, fries and bread with butter for lunch, and a delicious dinner with lots of fat, red wine and dessert. I enjoyed the food immensely and rarely felt hungry.
To me this way of eating seemed wildly unhealthy but I was stunned that while I was there I lost weight i.e. “The French Paradox”.
Several things come to mind – a lot of walking, high quality ingredients, smaller portions, and more fat kept me satisfied which led to less grazing and snacking. Even when my husband and I shared an afternoon pastry it was usually a work of art, we savored it, and it was not all that big by American standards – probably about the same number of calories as a Starbucks frappa-whatever.
When I went to France, I lost weight, but it’s because I generally disliked the food and found it hard to eat the way I like. I eat healthy and natural, do not care for processed foods and fat, and do not eat fast food. Yes, portions are smaller and it costs more, but I don’t care for it anyway.
Clearly your observations of the American diet are right on point. A recent study found that physical activity has increased in recent years, but it’s had no positive impact on the fight against obesity.
I’ve not traveled to Europe, but I found similar eating habits in Central America. Breakfast was small, though it may have included cereal or a a roll of some sort (not as sweet as we eat here.) More often it was beans and eggs. Unfortunately, the closer I got to the cities, the more I saw American “food” products, fast food restaurants, and eating habits creeping in.
I wonder if the rest of the world will catch up to the overeating habits of North Americans. I wonder if we can get the pendulum to swing back the other way on this continent. I hope so.
I too have traveled a bit & when I over indulge in alcohol or a sugary dessert I don’t beat myself up
for it; I ENJOY. I know that is a big deal coming from an American woman. I am also thin & healthy.
Bah v’oui! C’est vrai ca! Mais nous les francais on commence a devenir des Americains! C’est domage car on va tous se retrouver gras et grosse et puis ca deviendra une morme acceptable! Je crois que le vrai probleme n’est pas juste le manque de respect envers les traditions, mais aussi la tentation de devenir comme les Americains qui vivent comme des rois et qui sont servit a droite et a gauche. Tout le veut dans le fond devenir un roi, probleme c’est que eventuellement a force de se faire servir et bien on devient faignant, gras, egoiste, mal-nourrit et puis sans plaisir des vrai valeurs de la vie.
Meme dans les pays defavorises maintenant il y a l’influence Westerne qui a un mega message media de vivre comme des rois, cela va mener a la perte ou une famine mondiale si JE ne me reveille pas personnellemt. Donc, le changement commence par moi!
Good, well written article.
Totally agree about portion size… was in Barcelona a few years ago and could not believe the size of the soda cans, chips, snacks… all seemed like baby size portions… however the smaller size is about portion control. l think we need smaller size portion here in North America as well.
I too have traveled a lot in Europe, and I lived in France.
I agree with everything you said. In fact two events typified their attitude to food.
One was at a go-cart track. An uncle, his son and a cousin ran it. When it came to lunch time these guys stopped hiring out the go-carts and prepared and all sat down (with their other workers) to an incredible meal with everything fresh and delicious. We had been there a lot, so they invited us to join them. The meal lasted two hours! Tourists waiting were puzzled, but for the family, this was lunch and sacrosanct!
The other was the boulangerie (bakery) where very early every morning the best smells wafted from it, and often through the day as they kept baking fresh supplies. Croissants to dip in your hot chocolate in the early morning, incredible cheeses (NOT in refrigeration units) to go with the fresh baguettes, local fresh lettuce, tomatoes and ham for a pick-nick lunch accompanied by a wine from a tiny local vineyard. And nothing highly processed or prepackaged in the place … except salt.
Of course you walk there. A lot!
Some very interesting points you make in this article…very refreshing
Frederic, both tomato and cucumber are fruit. I love food; shopping for it (I visited Union Square Greenmarket today), preparing it, and enjoying it with friends. I’m a healthy weight. Of course, living in NYC I walk everywhere, and because of the myriad health food stores in my neighborhood, I shop frequently. One does not have to live like a typical American in NYC. The only jumbo-sized drink I’ve ever bought from Starbucks was iced herb tea, no sweetener. Health and peace.
I think it is difficult to develop tradition in a melting pot that doesn’t really melt but remains in layers.
I also believe that the nutritional value of foods grown in Europe is higher than even the organic foods grown in America. The higher nutritional value nourishes so less food is needed and is used more efficiently by the body. I personally can eat foods in Europe that I would not eat in America.
But it is almost impossible to find a good green juice or leafy green vegetables anywhere in Europe. Kale and chard are prominent in my diet and I am thankful to come home to them.
Well written! Ah…makes me want to return to Europe for a visit!
Thanks for this article! Having lived in France and visiting America few times over the years, I find it pretty much describes both lifestyles. Quality of food in France is what allows them to eat less and get a lot more nutrients in terms of vitamins and minerals- in smaller portions.
One thing I’ve noticed is that for dinner (although I do find for working people the main meal would be dinner) meal usually consist of a salad for entree; main meal is protein (meat or fish) with green vegetables such as green beans, carrots, peas etc; and the small dessert where everyone just have one piece. They don’t spare on butter/olive oils so they get satiated with high quality fats which lowers the need for proteins/carbs. They don’t eat a lot of bread for dinner (except if they have cheese after main meal but often they skip that part), so i think the main thing is lots of vegetables and protein and not a lot of carbs. And yes, breakfast is very small because they eat too much in the evening- so they have a habit of allowing the body to rest from digestion having small or no breakfast.
I am so puzzled by how ‘traditional’ peoples habits are.
I was brought up to 3 meals a day, but at age 15 came across yoga and later Food Reform and vegetarian ideas. I changed to a ‘no breakfast’ plan, which I have followed all my life (now 78). Despite all the official advice being to have a hearty breakfast, I often don’t eat lunch till 3pm or 4pm. with a second meal about 10pm.
Although the first 6 months was a little difficult, while my system got used to it, my body clearly likes my wholefood vegetarian lifestyle. I never feel tired, have had ‘flu only once as an adult, and no colds for 9 years.
My sugar levels are fine, and I never feel an urge to eat between meals. Only occasionally do I like a (small) treat very late at night – like a tiny portion of ice cream or a few squares of dark chocolate.
It was quite easy to change at a young age; perhaps people find it difficult after a lifetime habit, to change their food habits. I cannot understand the craving people have for cakes and biscuits. A delicious fruit salad is far more satisfying!
I agree too. I was in France last fall and even though I was eating richer foods than I do at home, I did not gain any weight. I was worried while I was there, because I was not getting all the greens that I consume at home, but we never snacked there. It was a great time and we had a lot of exercise! I never felt hungry.
Nothing you say is new, but it certainly is good to hear again and again and again. Say it again, Frederick!
Oh I couldn’t agree more Frederic, in the UK (where I was raised) we had 3 meals and a snack.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived here was that this was the first time I had seen a bag of chips that you could fit most of your arm in (at home even caterers don’t use bags that big!). And the amount of food eaten on the street and driving, eating whilst distracted is a plague in America that has driven up those obesity figures so quick (and continues to do so).
And then the quality of the food, in the US we eat not only more but more crappy food at that! GMOs abound and eating clean is an act of constant vigilance and self education, being healthy in America is not easy (hey i used to be 200lbs when I was a lawyer) but damn it is necessary.
Thanks for sharing this and shining a light on a very pervasive pandemic 🙂
We too ate to our hearts content when in Paris and both my husband and I lost weight–close to 5 lbs each.
If we can focus on fresh, local ingredients and get ourselves back into the kitchen to prepare these foods, we may all shed some extra pounds. Time to return to the tradition of family dinners.
After a recent road trip I was struck at how many more obese people I saw in more rural–less urban–areas. It was startling.
Just a few musings.
Great article Frederic. Look forward to many more.
Here in Oz am so pleased to discover someone as honest as yourself and so obviously healthy thanks to self discovery – we all don’t need a degree in health science to know whats good for us. Having travelled extensively myself part of the experience is about the local food. Having food prepared for you when holidaying is one of the luxuries and eating as the locals do is a part of the holiday feeling ! Hot chocolate and cuy (guinea pig) in Cuzco for instant – not at the same time ! I found it interesting to read of the timing and order of food such as in Italy when you drink latte only in the a.m. I have found my body clock is preprogrammed to when i eat certain foods. For instance no big intact of carbs in the evening such as bread. The old saying “eat like a King at noon” and like a pauper in the evening” is a good guide. BUT we are obsessed with “what’s for dinner” because of our the social climate and work demands we have created – the 9 – 5 grind or rather longer hours and ‘skipping’ lunch and eating late because of job demands and pressure. We really need a complete overhaul of how to organise our working life.
looking forward to reading more ! Cheers ! Kaz
Hi Frederic. You live in Montreal? I am your neighbour then as I live in Ottawa. I am surprised you did not mention eating in Canada. I find we are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. I lived in Europe for 10 years and understand what you are saying, but I also found that the food in France was far more nutritious than what is grown in America. Often people eat and eat and eat because their bodies are craving nutrients which they are just not getting in their food in the U.S. unless they grow their own or have access to good markets, and that results in weight gain too.
I am not a snacker either, unless it is fruit.
Welcome to Renegade Health.
Hi Frederic: Thanks for a well done and informative article. Having lived in France and traveling extensively in Europe, Canada, India, Mexico, Brazil; the U.S. food portions are outrageously large. My policy is to put half in a take-home before I begin eating. It works well–I am not tempted to eat too much. Not to mention other countries have fewer Genetically Modified Foods, which also cause weight gain. Keep writing.
As a fellow Canadian with European roots I whole heartedly agree with your observations. I try to make my largest meal at lunch as in my home country, Austria and a very light dinner. Most North Americans eat their largest meal late in the day which has never made sense to me. Well written post Frederic, I enjoyed it very much, merci!
great stuff and in some ways reminded me of an amazing book I am reading now, The Slow Down Diet by Marc David. It has really been changing my relationship with food. Keep up the good work.
Hi Frederic – a lovely summary of the culinary differences, and much food for thought. The pun is intended. You hit on two big ones: portion size, and ingredient quality. I think they are tied together. When we eat food that has been grown on depleted soils, pushed by fertilizers, it arrives on our plates quite hollow: it looks like the right thing, but is lacks nutrients. And at the end of the meal, the body says: “FEED ME!!” So you go back for more of the non-food, and end up with calorie-rich, nutrient-poor lifestyle that over time leaves one over-fed and over-weight. Here’s something worth contemplating: glandular dominance. There is a really good book out there, by Eliot Abravanel, who identified the four major types, two of which gain weight by fats and proteins, and the other two by starches.
I agree! When I first moved permanently to live in Europe (Germany) some 27 years ago, I was totally stunned by the amount of time spent gathered around the table at each meal, especially the hot lunch or main meal. Meals are much more social occasions than in the US. On an almost daily basis, Germans pause in the afternoon for “Kaffee”, at which time a piece of cake is usually eaten. I remember being extremely disappointed at the delicious looking cakes when I first came to Germany, as they d >
As I always say, there are good and bad things about every country. I was born and live in the U.S., but once a year I do a bike/barge trip to different areas of Europe. I just love the pace of life. People really know how to relax and enjoy their food in France and Italy. In Italy they go to the markets each day and buy what is fresh and available. People enjoy cooking as much as they do eating. In the countryside of France most houses have root cellars and people are still connected with the earth and seasonal eating. In the Netherlands eating is simple and everyone rides bicycles. They would not dream of building a road or bridge without a bike path. In the U.S. bike paths are an after thought or non-existent. I think we have a lot we could learn from Europe. We have to take back our health and eating habits that have been hijacked by the food industry. This is a monumental task, but we can do it.
You are absolutly right. We just returned from Europe, with 2 weeks in France and we observed the same. Very little obesity and wonderful food. We also found it very difficult to find a breakfast place, there just weren’t many to be found. What we did find interesting was, when we did find “breakfast” it was usually a good sized baguette AND a croissant. My hypoglycemic friend was a bit perplexed about that type of breakfast if it was typical. The other thing we noticed was very little “fast food” (as we know it) except for the baguette with fromage everywhere (with nothing else on it) YUM! But there wasn’t opportunities to be snacking everywhere. Thanks for the great explanation and clarifying things for us.
Very interesting article. Although I have never been to France, I agree that the meals served at restaurants in America are way too large. My husband is in his late 70’s and I am in my late 60’s and we still work full time. We eat out quite a bit. We most often order our meal with the intention of only eating 1/2 of it and taking the other 1/2 home for the next day. We generally eat at smaller restaurants where we know the owners and most often know that the foods are grown/purchased locally. We still love to make our Smoothies in the morning. Can’t wait to make my next Smoothie and adding “Kevin’s Super Nutritional Wild-crafted Peruvian Muna” and “Spirulina Powder” that I received today (Thanks Kevin).
Amen! Great “first” article, Fredric! I agree with you completely!
Americans eat waaaay too much in portion, plus we are a
I lived in the UK for a year back in the 80’s & could see the
the striking difference even then, of the cultural eating gap!
I personally strive to always stay within 2-3 pounds of my
ideal weight, and I’m on the slender side. I’m a die-hard
health nut, so am always eating organic, for my blood type,
along with being vegetarian. I consider myself to be very
healthy and physically fit. It takes self-discipline, but the
pay-off is worth it!
You forgot to mention the fact that Europeans eat have dinner late into the evening
which makes no sense to me
from what I have read on the subject of digestion is that it starts to slow down after 7 PM
thanks for reading
My mother was Austrian. Our food consisted of almost the same as the French. No snacking. We ate good wholesome food. She planted a garden every year. There was never ever dessert after a Dinner. My family now does not require dessert after eating. Once introduced to the world of American food, my diet became destroyed. I had to reteach myself how to eat propey again. But, around the holidays, mom made the best Austrian desserts. Only on Christmas.
Excellent. I completely agree.
The book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” talks about much of the same stuff. They eat REAL, high quality food (for the most part), and eating is a pleasurable, enjoyable experience, often shared with others. Unlike in America, where people eat fake food (or food-like substances, as Michael Pollen calls it), often on the run, and also have lots of guilt around food. Not so in France!!
Thank you for a great article!
Thank you. Great article. So many points in your article that I give a big YES nod to. I have made many changes in my food decisions in the past 4-5 years [I have always loved cooking and finding new things] the moment I decided to go “clean” it became more of an obsession than a joy. This reminds me to be more intuitive and stay with the joy of the food I love. I was raised on a farm…where is comes from is more the issue for me. Again, thanks…I will still continue to talk about food labeling and GMO’s..to me, that is more the order of importance.
your main pt. about food consumption being coupled with socializing is the part where people see no need to overeat – they are too busy relating to each other – sensibly & humanely!! that is enough there to explain alot. people become obese because they are trying to create love out of the feeling of fullness … its a control issue.
thanks for the blog. very colourful.
I think you are right on Fred. When I have gone to Peru I enjoyed the juice bars at the marketplace made from real fruits and veggies right in front of you. When I was in Greece, I enjoyed how they put olive oil on everything – rice, corn, salad, eggplant, octopus, and more. No bad oils there – only olive oil. When I went to Italy, I too noticed that the portions were smaller and that they didn’t have coffee all day long like we do here. At the same time, I thought the food was just way too expensive in Europe (and so was everything else) and I found that my American wallet was not faring well in Europe. I would say I got far more delicious food in Peru (although the fresh olive oil and eggplant were to die for in Greece) for my money. No matter which place I went to though outside of the US, I came back thinner. I need to go on vacation more often 🙂
Yes, as an American having lived and worked in France for 7 years, I asked myself, sometimes daily, how all you write here, could be! I came to the conclusion that North America is a land of immigrants, the majority who originally came from scarcity and fear, with the hopes of making a better life. Scarcity breeds hoarding- “Will there be enough?” This mentality then is passed down the generations, even if there is plenty. Furthermore, given it is a big land with spread-out metropolises, transport- whether once by horse or now by motorized transport became the way to move, further contributing to the sedantary lifestyle. Finally, immigrant-culture puts the dream of ‘making it’ above family and social connecting. This leads to burn-out and eating on the run or far too much, to compensate for the overstress and lack of connection.
However, having also lived in France during the battle of non-smokers vs. smokers, I learned that French women go by the motto, “Better dead than fat!” and smoke in higher proportion to their American counterparts. The French overall are greater consumers of antidepressants than Americans. So, the shadows exist in both cultures, each going to the outlet best connected to their sociological neuroses.
Thank you for your article. It well names the American shadow and offers contrasting sane, healthy alternatives. I would also add a 12 step slogan, “Put Down the Food and Feel the Feelings!”
“Paradox” is right. I never would have thought that paying no attention to salt and butter would be a good idea. But then we find that the obsessions with dieting and the beliefs of how “evil” those little pleasures we have are have caused us a 30% obesity rate and is still rising; whereas the French just shamelessly enjoy their wine and King’s feast of a lunch and their obesity rate is 11%. And that figure rose because (for reasons I’ll never understand) they’re imitating our over liberal eating habits. Something I learned from study and experience is that people thrive on order and balance, two rare qualities here.
Frederec, It was interesting to hear the details of mainstream eating habits around the world. However, I think you’ll find that Kevin’s readers are not your stereotypical obese, tv-watching, brainwashed-by-corporate-America, donut-and-chips eating, SUV-driving boobs. We’re onboard for good health! In fact, I get so much good info from the comments on the blog, that’s one of the reasons I tune in. Maybe things have changed, as I don’t check in as often since the videos stopped. But for myself, I am not interested in yet losing weight, the most popular (and tired) subject in the world right now. Dr. Oz has got that covered. Maybe you could write something about sun gazing. I vote to keep it renegade! Thanks, and all the best.
I am a Slow Food food lover. I was in France for 2 weeks. Every day, I had at LEAST 2 pastries, a baguette, pate’, cheese, wine and whatever else I desired – steak, oysters, fish…and really fresh fruits & veg. I felt GREAT all the time, and lost weight when I expected to gain weight – never going to a gym.
Here, I have all kinds of weird body-reactions to food, so that if I eat wheat and/or sugar, it’s almost guaranteed I will feel crappy for awhile. And I am ALWAYS battling my weight, not as successfully as I’d like, in spite of 3-4 times a week at the gym.
The French timing of food is a big factor in their low obesity rates, I’m sure, but there’s something else – probably the number of food additives here vs. there, and their concern with quality and sourcing of ingredients. Their food felt cleaner and healthier even when it was loaded with wheat, cream, and sugar. Food in America has been downgraded to a sad, distorted version of what food can be.
I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and what their traditions are, etc. I noticed that many of them don’t make such a huge ordeal over it all, and they eat what’s natural for them, and don’t try to find the next best thing on a continual basis (like expensive supplements and what not). They just eat their food for sustenance and then continue on with their day. It wasn’t until AFTER I started thinking about how I should eat (and as a result WORRYING that I was doing the wrong thing), that I started eating more calories and actually gained weight. Ugh. Now to undo what I’ve done. I love this article. Thanks! This just reminds me to just keep things simple and wholesome.
Our Parents & Grandparents, were not fat … they were strong, healthy and full of energy, where did the world lose it’s way? Eating foods with variety and beautiful tastes … what cold be better?
I love Pamela Druckerman’s books “French Children Don’t Throw Food” and “French Parents Don’t Give In” These make so much sense for parents keeping their sanity while traversing the challenges of this huge learning curve. Also, eating in this European way makes me feel strong & heathy,it is my heritage anyway.
Super size me. That is all we are fed. Pardon the pun.
Why does the rest of the world follow like sheep – everything American.
In South Australia’s wonderful wine region “Barossa Valley” the community had the fight the council to stop McDonald’s and Hungry Jacks from setting up camp. The Valley prides it’s self on local grown produce and wines.
Thank goodness the people won out or there would have gone another tradition.
Loved your article ! I remember noticing when in France that so many people had gardens and grew the most fabulous vegetables. I learned to cook watching Julia Child on tv and her recipes were always full of cream and butter! i agree that if we had more traditions that included discipline in not snacking and as you said… All the nutritionists telling us to eat many meals is definitely counter productive. I have actually decided to keep a food journal and make sure i dont graze and consciously decide to eat three meals only and one snack of a fruit. Maybe your article will make people “aware” that they should try to make some changes and in doing so establish a new tradition in their family of self imposed discipline! We certainly need to do something!! great article!
Frederic, welcome! I look forward to your columns. Kevin has a talent for bringing in excellent people.
I think you can be more adventurous with us. Turn a topic on its head. I don’t know about anyone else but the topic of us being fat and eating processed foods is a retreaded topic. What are the good food trends in other countries? What’s the raw food movement like in other countries? Is there a raw food movement? What food movements are going on elsewhere? Have they rejected the raw food movement? What is your diet like? What is the first thing you eat in the morning and why? (mistakes included).
The one thing we do really well is advertising. Our ads are funny, oftentimes engaging and constantly mesmorizing us. Recently,the “Food Babe” was interviewed by Dr. Mercola and she was talking about how she, too, had been led to believe the “Jerard” subs were healthy via chemicals. Then, she found out the buns contain many chemicals. We are taught about the “Amber Waves of Grain” yet, for me, it is coming to light that the wheat we have in this country has been frankensized and it is making us fat (See the “Wheat Belly” book). That’s what I would like to know: Is the wheat better in France and the rest of the parts of Europe? Is it healthier? The Food Babe, during her interview, talked about how Kraft Macaroni and Cheese has to eliminate certain chemicals in its product when it sells it in the UK but it refuses to eliminate the chemicals for its American market.
It’s time to start demanding more from our legislators. Let them know we are awake and we don’t want chemicals in our food. We want food choices. We don’t want the FDA shutting down farmers or businesses because they threaten a certain industry or big business.
We always talk about the communist or socialist threat. But, what can be more socialistic than a government agency that acts like a hired gun for the dairy, cancer or pharmeceutical industry and works to suppress information out there that could cut into the profits of those industries?
Don’t ever watch the “Eat, Pray, Love” movie as it was awful. The book on tape was great. It was fun and it is read by the author with gusto and enthusiasum (I really dislike when authors hire someone to read their book).
That should have read “via commercials” not “via chemicals”
This is a very well thought out and written article. I agree with you for the most part. When I was in Paris I was keenly aware that junk food was not easily found and I never saw anyone eating while walking down the street or on the subway. No trash from such junk food either! Walking was inevitable and fun. Bicyclists appeared to be the happiest people on the planet. However, we in the United States have many contributing factors against us in our quest to find and keep good health. Not the least of which is our government, owned and operated by the likes of Monsanto and big pharma brainwashing our citizens. Dirty electricity and stressful lifestyle are also big contributors to weight gain. We are largely a country with little culture or community, which leaves many feeling lonely and depressed. Like Gabriel Cousens so eloquently said: “There is never enough food to feed a hungry soul.” There is no easy answer.
one could start with a tomatoe plant in your windowsill using heirloom seeds
I have recently been to Budapest and Vienna and portions are smaller. You also have the option for small or large soup. Alot of the soup has meat in it (goulash soupen) so small is sufficient, as it is more like a stew! I live in Cyprus in the Mediterranean and so lots of olive oil, salads and traditional bean dishes, but alot of meat ad bread! Sadly it is heading towards junk and fast food, and fatter children! Although you still meet the traditional folk who still forage from nature and it is very nutritious, if you find pesticide free areas!
I like your article, thank you. My mother is English, living in America and she does eat sensibly!
Great article, on the continent people still buy their
Foods from local markets. From farmers who grow food
In a traditional way, the veg and fruit is so delicious its
hard for some one who is used to a super market tomatoe
To appreciate how delicious it an be when fresh and grown
For flavour not storage and good cropping. Here in the uk,
We fall behind being more happy with supermarkets! But slowly t
Slowly farmers markets are coming back, it’s more expensive
But more nuticious and delicious.
Ha! me too my nemesis is coffee but reduced to one a day now!
A very interesting article and so true.
I am in the UK and my husband and I often talk about how our nation was healthier when we had less choice and when children were taught to cook, buy and prepare food rather than buy ready made.
There is very little understanding in the general population, about how to handle food, especially in the young, meaning those around university age, who thanks to public food scares, (hyped up media extravaganza) will put food that has been sat on the worktop for 24 hours in the bin for fear of it being ‘off”. I am talking tomatoes here, or bananas! not pieces of meat. I work with this age group and they are mostly a little or a lot overweight and ignorant of how to eat, cook or store food properly.
Food that was once a treat is now considered fit for consumption several times a day and necessary daily. Ready made food and junk food that was once expensive and for the better off with poor folk eating basic food stuffs, has now become so cheap in comparison to ‘real’ food that our nations devour this junk as staples in their diet. Their taste buds have been corrupted and they are junk food junkies.
I think this kind of conversation is so useful in bringing the whole issue of our relationship to food into general consciousness and making people understand how we are really using food as an emotional anaesthetic rather than a pleasurable experience that is a ‘time out’ in its own right.
I could never do the smaller frequent meals myself, the two larger ones are better for me. I feel that the food supply here is so tainted and not natural, that it just doesn’t satisfy when you eat it and you just crave more. Many Europeans will tell you that their grains are more filling and healthy than their American counterparts, so when you eat a slice of bread or a small bowl of Pasta, you will be full.
I lay blame on the quality of the food, rather than the quantity.
Yes Frederic – your observations are absolutely spot on!!
I was in America and Canada last year on holiday (the 1st time for Canada and the 3rd for the US), and have noticed the big differences between European and American eating habits. I love both countries and want to make many more journeys to both – but I just can’t get over the portion sizes. My husband and I soon learned to order one meal between us – and we both ate more than enough – and that was in Canada as well as the US. I don’t know the stats but observationally Canadians are becoming as obese as their Americans cousins.
I also noticed that – unlike Europeans – North Americans don’t eat simply. They prefer their food with lots of flavours and condiments, many of which are fattening. If you order a salad for eg as a main course it contains everything but the kitchen sink! I wonder if that is because American food is mostly genetically modified and has consequently lost a lot of natural flavour. I was also very disappointed at the lack of fresh fish in Canada! – which seems amazing – except when we went almost to the Alaskan border and sampled the best salmon in the world. We were also lucky enough to be in Seattle when the salmon season was in. We ate grilled salmon for breakfast lunch and dinner – just grilled fish, boiled potatoes and a small green side salad, and I was in heaven. I used to wave the waiters aside when they came up offering big trays of sauces, salsas and bread and salt.
I’ve observed in previous emails that Americans are nutritionally starving, hence their need for large portions and lots of extra flavours. I do so hope that Americans are able to address this before too long and get their food administrators to really listen to concerns – because it is affecting us all globally.
I’m very glad my friend sent me this article because I am visiting New York now and funnily enough I was telling a friend yesterday that when I’m in Canada and the US I feel so skinny while when I’m in France and or Italy I feel fat …. and in fact I’m just average, not fat not skinny just healthy 🙂 and I live in Dubai 🙂
A few observations:
I think most cultures have positives and negatives to their diets and it’s most important to find what ‘works’ for oneself. We definitely tend to be obsessed with food – it’s become something much more than sustenance, but more like our lives revolve around what will be in the next meal. Finding balance is essential.
Soon after my German husband first came to the US, one time I ran in the grocery store while he sat in the car. When I came out, his mouth was agape, “You know, I’ve never seen so many really, really fat people in my life.”
I think some of the American obesity came about as a result of WWII. The men who came back had seen a lot of starvation and were determined that their families wouldn’t have to suffer like that. For them, sugar, butter, white bread, etc… were positives and what would keep their families from starving.
Finally, when we go out to eat, we sometimes order two meals and ask for one to be put in a takeout box. We share the other meal, which is always plenty for two, and the next day share the takeout one.
To the author,
Please don’t confuse your issue with Americans/America with the infiltration of processed food on our entire planet.
I’m not sure where you were a tourist, but I’ve never in my seven years of living here seen anyone eat anything else but bleached white flour baguette with butter and jam (loads of sugar!) and dunk each bite into their cafe au lait. Were you hanging out only with vegans? Did you go into a grocery store to see that they were filled to the brim with packaged processed French brand foods? Did you know that the popular solution here for obesity and type 2 diabetes is not change of diet, exercise, and stress reduction, but medication with major side effects and stomach reduction surgery which causes mineral deficiency, and then you will need….more medications!
You can’t tell me that the romantic idealization of anything, really, is the whole picture.
America= burgers+fat people
French= pleasure+food+better than America
I expect MUCH, MUCH more from people who say they appreciate culture.
I do not think you are necessarily wrong in your observations, but I do have some points to make. Your observations stink of your privilege. Obesity in America is directly tied to socio-economic standing. White people are obese, but if you look at where they are more likely to be obese then you will see it is in the states with the poorest whites. Furthermore, you will see that in America on average Asian immigrants and families have a lower rate of obesity. They also have a higher rate of socio-economic attainment. Black and Latino populations have higher rates of obesity, and associated ailments like diabetes and heart disease. Those two communities are also two of the most economically excluded in American, though in the case of the Latino population that is changing somewhat. Food, weight, and class are powerfully associated in America. This may somewhat tie into your romanticizing of French and Italian notions of tradition, but your pronouncements on an entire country seem to lack the nuance one would expect when one is judging one of the largest, most diverse countries in the world.
Great article…very informative…thank you!
Loved this! In Peru breakfast was an avocado, bread and preserve, with matte on the side ( a tea). There was a huge lunch, and then a piece of bread for dinner with tea again. Not much snacking if any. I had more bread, rice and potatoes in that 3 weeks than I had had in my year if dieting, yet I lost about 15 pounds. Also helped that I walked everywhere. 3 meals a day with no snacks in between since then and smaller portions have resulted in my loss of 60 pounds which I have been maintaining for about 2 years now. If only I could add back “walking everywhere” or at least walking more.
I enjoyed your article. Here in Australia I am shocked how many children are overweight at a very young age. I have struggled with weight all of my life and I attempt to teach my children good habits, but it is an uphill battle.
Parents here always seem worried that their kids will get hungry, so they stuff their lunchboxes full of little packets of crap (“snacks” as they call them). The schools make a very small effort to encourage the kids to drink water and eat fruit, but the government-imposed “healthy canteen” protocols are an absolute joke!
Our supermarkets are also a joke. They are in the business of making us fat so that we buy more food! At the end of every aisle is some form of highly processed, highly flavoured food-like substances, always discounted. The kids and the adults have lost the ability to taste real food, with their “bliss point” unable to recognise real flavour.
Meal portions are totally out of control and cheap! My 16 year old thinks it is cool to drink a bucket of frozen Fanta after his shift at a fast food company. Afterall, it only costs $1.
Our doctors push medications as the answer to every illness instead of trying to help patients figure out where it all went wrong. My friends with diabetes and heart disease are all being highly medicated and recommended to eat carbs at every meal (bread in most cases) with cholesterol-lowering margarine of course.
Where will it all end?
Keep up the good work. Hopefully one day we can help turn it all around.
As an American who’s lived for the past 36 years in Paris, I’ve been surprised by the growing number of (French) people who now eat in the metro at all hours and on the street. I’ve been surprised by the number of (French) people at Starbucks with giant drinks at all times of the day and the long lines at the McDonald’s “restaurants” in Paris and in French country towns.
I observe that the French are, in numbers, behind the Americans regarding the world’s obesity epidemic, but are inexorably catching up, as are other Europeans. There’s also the issue of costs as more French people are on tighter budgets. Just like in the States, it’s far cheaper to feed your family fast food than pricey vegetables and fruits.
There’s also the issue of advertising on TV. When I arrived here 36 years ago, there were three state-run TV channels with no ads whatsoever and the most popular show discussed books. Now there are hundreds of programs available, including some “reality shows”.
And, as mentioned in a previous comment, the French are still smoking lots of appetite-supressing cigarettes (especially young people) and consume the highest number of anti-depressants world-wide according to articles in the French press.
“Déjeuner” means exactly “breakfast”…breaking the fast “le jeune”. The French people I’ve had breakfast with over the years eat croissants, pain au chocolat, Nutella (which I first discovered here in France) or jam on toast.
Hardly diet fare!
The saddest article that I’ve read recently in the French press is that a shocking 85% of restaurants in France now serve industrially prepared dishes that are re-heated, not the fancy “French chef” creations mentioned so fondly above…
What I find most interesting is how alike we all are, world-wide, when we have the same choices presented to us!
I’m a retired flight attendant who spent a great deal of her life in Europe. You are dead on about the cultural difference. Here’s one that drive me nuts here. My kids are grown, and although I disliked the same thing then, it’s worse now. Even buying healthy food, everything is in giant packages of vegetables and fruits. When feeding a family, it worked out – I found a way to use everything. Buy now, retired baby boomers do not need these giant packages of everything. You wind up eating more than you really want, or throw it away. How about smaller package quantities, or European style, buy only the quantity you want. A handful of cherries, not a two pound bag!
Anyone willing to start that business?
We have the same issue but we share the ok food with our dogs, take things to the ducks in the canal, and also freeze food for longer shelf life.
I think this is an excellent article. I might add that many Europeans buy eat fresh bread and cheese every day. However, traditional European bread and cheese does not have any sugar, HFCS or chemical preservatives in it to give it shelf life like the North American products do.
I was just in Paris and was thinking about doing a documentary on the subject but noticed other differences between the French and american food.
1. A salad in any cafe in paris seems to be made from garden fresh lettuce, i know what fresh picked lettuce is like as i grow it at my house. No matter where you eat in the US the lettuce seems to be 3 to 10 days old. i would like to follow the life of a lettuce leaf in both places and actually see the differences. Also the dressing is used in moderation in Paris and is light compared to heavy salty dressings in the US. Fresher food is higher in nutrition.
2. Desserts in the US are overly sweet, in Paris and all over Europe deserts are lightly sweet. Sugar feeds cancer.
Hello from a fellow French Canadian who currently spends part of the time in Vancouver and the larger part of the time in Australia. (no prizes for guessing which part of the time I spend in Vancouver…)
My mother is also a French National from birth so being raised in Montreal we ate more like the French than the French Canadians. We had salad at every diner after a simple main course of protein and vegetables and before a simple desert that might be a “compote” of fruit or a french tarte which had a very thin base with lot’s of fruit on it especially when fruit was in season. My mother was a working professional so we had a nanny also European (Belgian) who cooked the meals and most everything from scratch. My mother has a dislike of any prepared meal to this day and at 75 she looks about 20 years younger. We did however eat our main meal in the evening since it was hard to pack a main meal as a school lunch or for my parents a work lunch but nowadays I eat my main meal at lunch time every day. I always smile as I pick up a piece of wild sockeye Salmon at the shops after a mid morning stop at the gym, when the attendant says: “Have a great diner” showing his assumption that I won’t be eating this for lunch which I most definitely will.
When I was in Italy close to the French border recently in a small village, shops would still close for two or three hours at lunch time to let everyone go home and have a decent lunch. This is a testament to the importance that this meal has for Europeans.
Thanks for your thoughts and a great article
you hit the nail on the head! and you expressed just about every thing that has been bugging me in terms of eating ever since i moved to this country ! I don’t think you covered the US sweet tooth enough, every thing sweet here is double and triple sweet, example ice cream: i used to love ice cream! in my home town we had lots of Italian “gelato” places in Germany that only operated in the summer months with the most delicious ice cream! in the US ice cream is sickening sweet and artificially flavored – even the Ben and Gerry type expensive ones tend to have way too much sugar for my taste…. in short I LOVE your write up!
American portion sizes are huge. There’s no doubt about it. They continue to grow as WE continue to grow. But you may have the cause and effect backwards. We aren’t getting fat because we eat too much, we eat too much because we are getting fat. We are getting fat because the Standard American Diet (SAD) is full of sugar and highly processed carbohydrates. When we fill up on the sweet breakfasts, sweet desserts, and sweet and starchy snacks, we fill up on nutritionally empty sugar and processed wheat products. In an hour or two, our bodies are screaming for nutrition in the only way it can…hunger. So we eat more. But we keep eating nutritionally barren foods, and our bodies keep demanding more. All the sugar, and all the refined carbohydrates and starchy foods that get processed into sugar, drives excess insulin excretion which drives fat storage. More body mass requires more nutrition, and the cycle continues. When we stop eating all the junk sugar and refined carbohydrates, appetites quickly return to normal and portion sizes are reduced. This effect is almost instantaneous. Once we do this, eating plenty of fat is not a problem. The French Paradox is easily explained. “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” (Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957. Print.) The premise that fat makes you fat and causes heart disease it the premise that is wrong. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are the villain here. Notice how the traditional French diet is short on these?