Wine, full-fat cheese, and bread. This typical French cuisine sounds indulgent, yet on average the French seem to have healthier weights than Americans.
Known as the "French paradox," this mystery has been explored by researchers for years. Their conclusions? Generally, the French seem to have a more balanced outlook about food, portion control, and the experience of eating. In the French culture, people tend to enjoy more... and eat less.
Guidelines from abroad
What can we learn from the French? Here are some practical tips to get you started without going to Paris:
Practice portion control. The number one secret behind the slim French figure is feeling satisfied with smaller portions.One study compared the average portion sizes in Paris and Philadelphia restaurants. American portions were about one-fourth larger than the French.
- Think twice when you see the words "all you can eat," "supersize," or "jumbo."
- Have an appetizer as your meal, split a main dish, or take leftovers home for your next day's lunch.
Rely on internal versus external cues. French people often use internal cues - such as no longer feeling hungry - to stop eating. Americans tend to use external cues, such as whether their plate is clean or the TV show they're watching is over.
- Limit distractions while you're eating. This includes television, newspapers, and the computer.
- Take smaller portions and wait 10 minutes before going back for seconds.
- Practice leaving food on your plate.
Slow down and enjoy your food. The French don't think of a meal as something to get through quickly but as an event to relish and enjoy.
- Eat only while sitting down.
- Eat with awareness. Find what works for you: maybe listening to classical music, eating outside on your deck, or using your best dishes.
- Make every bite count. If it doesn't taste great, don't waste your time (and calories).
Allow for small indulgences. The French don't know the meaning of deprivation when it comes to fine food. Americans, on the other hand, have trouble with moderation and tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude.
- If there's a food you really love, learn to enjoy it in small amounts. For instance, if your pleasure is chocolate, you may be happy with a few sensual bites rather than needing to down an entire bar.
- If you adore fancy cheese, enjoy it with slices of fresh pear or other fruit, and make it part of your meal.
- If you like wine, enjoy a glass in moderation, but no more than a glass a day for women or two glasses a day for men. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to be sure it will not interact with any medicine you take.
Make exercise part of your day. The French don't exercise or go to the gym more than Americans, but they often walk everywhere. Rather than one-stop shopping at the supermarket, they'll walk to the bakery for bread, the market for produce, and the butcher for meat.
- Look for ways to fit exercise into your life, starting with walking if that suits your lifestyle. Park in the far parking lot, take the stairs when you can, walk your dog, or walk to the store or library.
- For more formal exercise, join a gym, take classes, or keep equipment in your home, such as a treadmill or stair-climber.
- Always check with your doctor before you increase your activity level.
Put your scale into storage. Forget the scale, say French women, and pay attention to how you feel and how you look.
Use the zipper test. Find a favorite pair of pants, one that fits just right. If you feel the zipper getting tight, it's time to reassess what and how much you're eating and whether you've been moving enough each day.
Created on 02/28/2000
Updated on 07/18/2011
- Wansink B, Payne CR, Chandon P. Internal and external cues of meal cessation: the French paradox redux? Obesity. 2007;15:2920-2924.
- De Lorgeril M, Salen P, Paillard F, et al. Mediterranean diet and the French paradox: two distinct biogeographic concepts for one consolidated scientific theory on the role of nutrition in coronary heart disease. Cardiovascular Research. 2002;54:503-515.
- Ferrieres J. The French paradox: lessons for other countries. Heart. 2004;90(1):107-111.