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After a two-week eating extravaganza in France, I arrived home three pounds lighter. The secret? Just eat like the French do. A market in Sarlat, France (Chris and Alison Walley/Flickr)

I just returned from two weeks in a small village in southwestern France. Food, as you can imagine, was a big part of the experience: Croissants for breakfast, wine at lunch, wine at dinner, dessert twice a day, and the occasional visit to the local patisserie. I write not so much to admit my gluttony, but to share some shocking news: After a veritable two-week eating extravaganza, I arrived home three pounds lighter. Seriously? I kicked the scale, and stepped on it again. But it was irrefutable.

In eating the way French people do, I ended up losing weight. Talk about joie de vivre.

Volumes have been written about French women and how they eat whatever they want and remain thin and perpetually attractive. Most notably in Mireille Guiliano’s “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” the author writes about how French women eat bread and chocolate, and drink Champagne as part of “a balanced diet and lifestyle.”

But how do they do it? Here are my unscientific observations:

The No-Snack Zone:

The French eat three square meals a day. Even in big cities like Paris, restaurants are open during set mealtimes and only then. There aren’t endless convenience stores and snacking opportunities throughout the day. Yes, you can always find an open café, but grazing is rare.

In eating the way French people do, I ended up losing weight. Talk about joie de vivre.

Time Out:

At noon, throughout much of France, entire cities and villages shut down for lunch. A friend who lives in a small village tells a story of being in line at a grocery store with a cart full of food and being told, at 12:03 p.m.: “Pardon, Madame. Come back at 2. Fermé.”

The French are devoted to their lunchtime break. I imagine them eating heartily and slipping off for small liaisons, not to mention a nap. Around 2 — or often as late as 3 — in the afternoon, doors open, and commerce resumes. Imagine a shop in NYC or Boston closing down at noon and turning down a sale?

Midday Feast:

Unlike lunch in the U.S. (a sandwich at your desk, or a quick bite at a fast-food restaurant), lunch in France consists of a set-price, multi-course meal, accompanied by a glass or two (or three) of wine. Of course, many of these menus are designed for tourists, but in Paris I saw many groups of business colleagues dining together in the middle of the day for well over an hour. And, importantly, the midday meal is not eaten instead of dinner. It is, simply, lunch.

(courtesy of author)

Olives,tapenade and sundried tomato paste at market in Sarlat, France (courtesy of author)

Watching All Shoppers:

Going to an open-air farmer’s market or strolling the aisles of the supermarché, I was fascinated watching French women (and men) shop for food. Americans, for the most part, grab vegetables wrapped in plastic and throw them in their cart. In France, there is sniffing, poking, and prolonged examination. Shoppers want to know specifics: How long has this cheese been aged? Where was this pork raised? When was this eggplant picked? There seems to be an intrinsic understanding and appreciation of ingredients that one doesn’t find among American shoppers. And informed shoppers make great cooks.

Move It!:

In almost every town and village we visited, there were well-marked bike lanes, hiking trails, public tennis courts, pools — not to mention kayaks and canoes for rent. Easy access to exercise means people can stay fit.

Back home now, I’m eating salads for lunch and steamed veggies for dinner. Gone from my diet are bread and croissants.

But what’s this? I’ve gained a pound since I returned from my two-week French eating extravaganza. Excuse me? Pardonnez-moi?

I took the dog for a long walk this morning. I found a new path and we were gone a bit longer than normal. Who knows, maybe I’ll have a glass of wine with lunch this afternoon?

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  • Ana_900

    Glad to hear that this doesn’t happened to me only. When I tell my friends how I lose weight when I’m in Europe even when I eat way more, they think it is only because I move more, but is it not just that, it is food quality. Also, I want to add when I come back to US, I can’t eat at the restaurants for a month or so because I get stomach aches, it takes time to adjust to the food in here.

    • Amos

      I have had at least two other people tell me the same. They not only lost weight, but felt better and the food they came back to, which they always were fine with, made them feel ill.

  • BobSmith

    Color me a bit skeptical. There are no magical weight-loss properties imbued upon a vegetable by poking it vs wrapping it in plastic. It’s pretty easy to drop 3 lb within a day or two just from water weight and using the restroom. The author could have maintained her weight throughout the trip and merely lost a couple pounds by not eating or drinking much on the long flight home. Of course, that isn’t the sort of weight that stays off, but if you only go by one data point, it can appear as if you’ve “lost weight.”

    If you’re gaining weight while eating steamed vegetables, but losing it while allegedly drinking wine and eating fat-loaded carbs, then you’re doing something wrong.

    • samuelpepys

      I work a month or two in Paris every year, and have lived there, as have other members of my family. I lose weight each time. It usually takes one or two weeks to get it back, longer after I’d been away for a year, so it isn’t water-weight lost on a long airplane ride. I immediately stop eating bread, cheese and drinking wine, and yet immediately start to gain weight. It’s been going on long enough to figure out though, along with reading some articles: processed food, even without added sugar, makes you gain weight (they have more in France now, and have begun to have problems with weight and diabetes, though not on our scale). Gigantic American fruits and vegetables are like water balloons. A small glass of wine with meals keeps you from turning calories into fat, as does the prevalence of olive and nut oils in cooking and dressings, as does frequent consumption of nuts, avocados, radishes etc., as does relaxation and eating slowly. And living without a car makes a big difference in calories expended. It’s easier in Paris than Boston as there are far more and more frequent subways and stops, bus lines and stops, and commuter trains, which also stop in the central city and cost half as much as MBTA trains.

      • Jezreel

        thanks for sharing

    • throck

      It has nothing to do with the shrink wrap, but rather eating more deliberately. I believe that the French style of eating makes for a more satisfying meal, beginning with the fact that the French rarely eat alone. The French pay more attention to food and have a higher standard. But the portions are smaller–gluttony is considered unattractive.

      The attitude toward food is much different. Quality is much more important than quantity and constant availability. The French also place a higher value on the company of friends and family, particularly at mealtime.

      Also, I have noticed that in the places that I have visited in France, people tend to walk more. That makes a big difference.

  • Bea

    I am originally from France and share the exact same experience when I go back for a visit….I also think it has a lot to do with eating less processed food and embracing every meal as a guilt-free social ritual shared with family, co-workers, guests…

  • OH COME ON!

    Gimme a break. You went to France as a tourist? You walked more than usual? Do you sit more at home? What other variables have you not accounted for? Don’t waste our time with this drivel!

  • Amy

    You forgot to mention the portions…
    French restaurants don’t serve pieces of meat, or cake, or even salads the size of your head! Normal, human-appropriate portions, and taking at least two hours for dinner, make it easy both to eat three courses and wine, and not to gain weight in the process.

  • Liz Hadley

    I had the same experience (lost several pounds) while visiting Spain and France last late summer/early fall. For me, it wasn’t much of a mystery. The secret is the delight of being in a lovely place, for the fun of it, enjoying the culture, scenery, and walking for miles each day, without even noticing. The Spanish and French do not get in their cars to go through the drive-thru at BK or McD. If they don’t eat at home, they have their favorite little family-owned restaurant where the food is local and deliciously prepared for not so much money. And the siestas are wonderful too!

  • Stewart Urist

    All this is so interesting. I think it has to do with eating foods that are not processed or high in corn syrup as well as the portion size and the increase in physical activity. This is the way my wife and I try to eat every day.

  • Kash Hoffa

    This article doesn’t belong on Cognoscenti. A single individual’s anecdotal observation of a relatively small amount of weight loss does not a new finding make. An article such as this is better placed on “The Enquirer.”

    • throck

      Go ahead and commission a study if you must, but it seems that one individual’s anecdotal evidence has resonance with many other folks.

      One cannot deny that the French are less overweight than Americans. All it takes is a visit to France to examine the abundant evidence, which I recommend highly.

  • Jantsch

    Don’t generalize a big city habits to all of France. I worked on a dairy farm in eastern France one summer in the 70′s. They never ate out at a restaurant.ever because they were busy and they could not have afforded it. Breakfast was starch (bread) and coffee with milk. That was my only regret, food wise, but there were cows to be brought in and milked and this was not a meal to linger over. They ate a large meal exactly at noon. It was similar in many ways to the rural southern cooking I knew from my mother’s kitchen (sliced beefsteak tomatoes, green beans, beets, potatoes, pork chops and –horribly– blood sausage, sometimes), but with better bread. At 5 pm, le gouter was time to eat bread with fresh butter and chocolate and get back to work. Supper was at 9–something simple like eggs poached in fresh tomatoes with oregano or cheese rarebit with gherkin pickles floating in it, and dessert–an open crust pie with hacked up plums or raspberries and a sprinkle of sugar. Wine was served half water at dinner and supper. There was no hydrating or other orally fixated activity all day in the sun, just work. Sometimes they served local liqueurs if company dropped by, either in very small glasses or a few drops on a cube of sugar. If you analyzed the food intake it wasn’t all that healthy looking–lots and lots of cholesterol, carbs, and animal fat, for instance, but they also ate a lot of vegetables and worked themselves to the bone so nobody anywhere was fat. They looked like the rural elderly of the 60′s in the American South, scrawny, lean and muscular.

    I think the uptick in obesity is linked closely to the advent of air-conditioning. Those of you who visited France recently–remember sweating?

  • Pam Kelley

    I heard Kathy’s account of her French experience as I was taking a break from listening to my current “car read”–Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman. The American author paid close attention to the French parenting style and went on to apply what she learned to raising her own children in Paris and Brooklyn. As Kathy emphasized, 3 meals a day is the national norm, with a fourth, “le gouter”, added late in the afternoon for children. Druckerman observed the beginning of this gustatory discipline in infancy when feeds are delayed slightly to allow the baby to settle itself and learn to wait. Mothers losing post partum weight don’t consider themselves to be dieting. Rather, they are “paying attention”. The French approach that Kathy described of enjoying food exclusively at mealtimes seems like the recipe for a healthy life-long relationship with food.

  • David Kanda

    Being able to eat like another culture involves one living within that culture. You cannot live an American lifestyle and expect to emulate the eating habits of a Parisian. I, myself, lived in Tokyo for almost 20 years of my life and during that time, I ate like the Japanese. It’s because I lived there.
    Now living in the United States, I try my best to eat healthy but I’m not eating the same foods or in the same manner as if I were living in Japan.
    You may be thinking, Why not? Because the lifestyle is different. For example, the French take a two hour lunch break giving them ample time to truly savoir their food. My lunch break is 30 minutes and I’m gulping it down while watching the clock and checking my emails. You get the idea?
    I envy the French having alloted so much time in their lives to food. I have to take supplements just to keep up. Between working, the gym and getting enough sleep, food is usually the last thing on my mind.

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