The doors opened and I casually walked out. No more than ten steps, and the situation become very obvious; I was completely surrounded. Every which way I looked, there it was. The harder I looked, the more evident it became. There was no avoiding it. I had never noticed it like this before, which was surprising, even to me.
Double-chins. Muffin tops. Legs that did the “wave” with each passing step. Where the hell was I?
No, this wasn’t some personal trainer’s fantasy land, this was North Carolina. Specifically, Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, where I had just arrived after a 10 hour flight from Paris. Faced with a four-hour layover on my way home to San Diego, I looked around in amazement. We frequently hear about the obesity epidemic in America, but truthfully, it’s easy to get desensitized to it when you’re living in midst of it. Nearly two weeks in Europe provided a new frame of reference, and opened my eyes to the dark and ugly side of our nation’s health crisis.
Is Diet Really 60% of the Battle?
I’m sure you’ve heard it before; diet is 60% of your weight loss battle. Hell, I’ve even reported this myself in previous posts on the issue. My time in Paris really had me second-guessing this notion. Let me elaborate…
Being the unashamed glutton that I truly can be if I allow myself, Paris was a fantasy land. The best butter you’ve ever tasted, used in everything. The tastiest, sweetest, creamiest pastries (usually several), every single morning. Rich, fatty meats, for lunch, topped with even richer, fattier sauces. More of the same for dinner. The lightest, fluffiest, breads imaginable, and served by the (several) basket full at every meal. Fatty foie gras, served frozen, warm, braised, shaved, seared, on the top, on the side, even as ice cream, all the time. Everywhere. Multiple bottles of red wine at every meal.
Simply put, there was no shortage of indulgence when it comes to food in France. And these type of meals weren’t just for the food-obsessed tourist. Ordinary business people at lunch, locals at a neighborhood bakery, families out to dinner….they all ate these traditionally “unhealthy” foods, and they ate them often.
That’s right, the French seemingly eat loads of white flour pastries and bread products, refined sugars, rich, high-fat meats, and NEVER pass on dessert. But you know what? They’re all slim. No muffin-tops. No bulging bellies. No double-chins. I was hard-pressed
to find even modest examples of obesity during my entire stay in the country. This of course runs directly against the conventional wisdom you’ve probably heard a thousand times over; maintain a diet heavy in complex carbs, limit sugar, choose lean meats, blah blah blah…..right?
They’re Skinny, We’re Fat. Why?
So what gives? How can an entire country, which eats so “badly”, maintain such lean, slim figures? What I discovered during my time in France, was eye-opening. It occurred to me that just maybe, we’ve obsessed too much about the foods we’re eating here in the States, and have lost sight of the true factors responsible for our weight gain.
After a while, I began to notice some commonalities amongst the French that we largely absent over here. I’m under the impression that THESE are the true reasons the French can eat the way they do and still maintain a healthy body weight. I’m going to break these down, in hopes of giving you a new way to look at how and what you eat, and shine some light on the weight loss battle so many of you struggle with.
- They are their own transportation. It really is remarkable how much the French physically move. Virtually no one uses a car to get around. Transportation usually includes walking, biking, or riding public transport (followed by more walking). And these are 4 block walks up the street. We’re talking mile walks, to and from the grocery store, on a very regular basis. When’s the last time you opted to walk/ride a bike instead of taking the car for anything over a mile?
- They rarely snack. There really isn’t a culture of snacking in France. There is light breakfast, heavy lunch, lighter dinner. The constant grazing, visiting vending machines, filling themselves with processed junk simply isn’t going on over there. When they do snack, it’s largely on a small bowl of olives and crackers, or a few slices of unprocessed cheese, before dinner.
- They stay busy. Granted, this is much easier to do in Paris than Topeka, Kansas, but the French are always doing something. How often do you eat out of boredom? When you find activities to fill your time, you’ll find yourself less likely to eat simply for the sake of eating.
- Lunch is the biggest meal. And by virtue, this curbs appetite later in the day, so they eat less for dinner. A study examined caloric intake of workers in Paris and Boston. Parisian workers consumed 60% of their daily calories by 2PM. This lead to smaller intake in the evening. Americans often starve themselves all day then binge at night. While there has been some conflicting reports on the matter, binge eating at night has been shown to contribute towards greater weight gain in some studies.
- They know stress kills. In several studies, quality of life in France is considered to be #1 in the world(1). They’re entire system is set up in a way that vastly differs from American society. They take time to smell the roses, savor an espresso in a cafe, and know how to keep their work/life balances in check. It’s no secret that high levels of stress are directly responsible for weight gain and/or disease later in life. The relatively care-free life of the average Parisian plays quite a part in their maintaining a healthy body weight.
- They eat differently – literally. They sit to eat. They hold their fork like a fork, not a shovel, in their non-dominant hand. They chew one bite before taking another. This may seem like insignificant bits of advice, but it all contributes to savoring your meals, and consuming fewer calories each time you eat.
- They indulge cravings. It’s easy to over indulge when you feel like this is going to be your last bite of cake for a month. Instead of taking a small portion, you want to make the most of your “cheat” meal and end up devouring the entire thing….then are overcome with feelings of guilt. Stop feeling guilty about food and cheat meals – it’s not healthy. Remember when I told you the French never say no to dessert? It’s because they’re eating smaller portions. It’s easy to have only a few bites of something breathtakingly delicious if you know the next time you meet is only 24 hours away.
In retrospect, a lot of this does have to do with “diet”, but not in the same way “diet” has been pounded into our heads. It would appear, based on my time in France and the observations I made, that it’s less about the foods they are eating and more about HOW they eat them, WHEN they eat them, and WHAT they’re doing between meals.
I do believe, above all else, finding ways to increase activity is the number one reason the
French are able to eat the way they do. I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of daily exercise. An exercise plan designed to help you lose weight, build muscle, or achieve any other sort of goal is great, but it often isn’t enough. Five hours of exercise a
week is great, but there are still plenty of other hours remaining for activity. Get out of the cycle of hopping in the car to ride to the grocery store. You’ll be completely shocked by how many additional calories you can burn each day without having to exercise more IF you start living a more active life.
Take time to smell the roses, take a yoga class or whatever works to help you de-stress, find enjoyment in taking the time to prepare a fresh, home-cooked meal, savor a glass of red wine, and realize there is more to life than simply making another buck; you’re happiness and health are the most precious gifts you have.