Dietary wisdom from a French shopkeeper
When I was 11, my family and some close family friends traveled around Paris and the French countryside for a week. I remember that everything looked – and tasted – as if I was wearing the proverbial rose-colored glasses. Although we enjoyed the essential tourist activities, my favorite part was slipping out of the tourist-filled city into the countryside, where we stayed at a small inn and walked through the town.
At one household shop, my dad began a conversation with the grandmotherly shopkeeper. She spoke good english and they got into this enthusiastic discussion about the differences between the French and American lifestyles. “It’s quite simple,” she stated matter-of-factly, “We French live in the moment. You can’t eat in the moment and drive in the moment at the same time. But Americans drive while eating all the time.” We all listened as she made similar comparisons, all of which made perfect sense to explain America’s obesity epidemic and the general health of the French nation.
Does the French diet keep you thin?
Recently, I read French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano and it immediately took me back to that Paris trip.
As a typically slender French girl, Mirelle Guiliano went to America as an exchange student and came back fat. That shock sent her into an adolescent tailspin until her kindly family physician, “Dr. Miracle,” came to the rescue. Reintroducing her to classic principles of French gastronomy plus time-honored secrets of the local women, he helped her restore her shape and gave her a whole new understanding of food, drink, and life. The key? Not guild or deprivation but learning to get the most from the things you most enjoy. – From the book’s cover
It provided a thoroughly entertaining and eye-opening read while outlining the ultimate non-diet for losing weight with French principles.
The unparalleled success of the French diet rests on nutrient-dense ingredients and the celebration of food as ritual. With insights from Mirelle’s book, as well as my own research into healing nutrition and my experience in France, here are 15 French diet secrets that I believe everyone should know – and practice – for lifelong health and happiness.
1. Eating is always mindful
Mindful eating increases satiety, digestion and pleasure while reducing caloric intake, stress hormones and weight gain. The French cultures encourages mindful consumption of each meal and even snacks. This is one of the most important factors in French health.
We can only digest when the nervous system is in parasympathetic mode, the “rest and digest” state. When we are stressed, eating on the run, eating in front of the TV or eating in a hurry, we cannot properly digest our food because we are in sympathetic mode. Undigested meals mean we feel unsatisfied and experience a host of uncomfortable symptoms like bloating and gas.
The French see food as a ritual. A meal calls for an accompanying wine, family or friends, discussion, laughter and reverence of the delicious food. By eating slowly over a period of courses, the French enjoy excellent digestion and feel satisfied without ever overeating.
2. The French know and accept the price of quality food
Americans – and those in other Western nations facing epidemic illnesses – need a paradigm shift. We pay little for quality food, but then end up spending more on healthcare and medications in the future. Instead, we need to invest in healthy food to prevent illness costs in the future.
According to Forbes,
In 1901, according to a 1997 Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the average family spent almost half of their budget on food. Just 3% of that went to meals away from home. Today, we only spend an average 13.3% of our budgets on food–but 42% of that money is spent in restaurants.
French families know the art of stretching the food budget by preparing wholesome foods at home and utilizing every morsel that offers nutrients and flavor, including bones and organ meats. With that said, the French don’t balk at paying more for quality food. They know that quality food means pleasure in the short-term and health in the long-term.
3. The French enjoy market trips
The French frequent their local markets numerous times a week and sometimes once per day. This accomplishes two factors vital to the nation’s health: local food and seasonal food.
By purchasing from vendors at their market, the French enjoy unprocessed, nutrient-dense and fresh foods. They know their producers and understand from where their foods comes. Additionally, shopping at the market restricts their produce purchases to seasonal produce. The French scorn tomatoes in the dead of winter, because they know only summer vine-ripened tomatoes are worth paying for. Even salmon is a seasonal food in France, because the French prefer fresh and wild fish over farmed or frozen options.
4. The French don’t eat foods with a TV commercial
How many foods in your pantry and can you see in a TV commercial? One cardinal rule of health eating is, “Don’t eat any food that has a TV commercial.” The French lifestyle complies with this rule as a matter of course.
Because the French shop primarily at markets for day-to-day groceries and favor seasonal, local foods, they choose artesian products over mass-produced ones. For example, they go to the local butcher’s shop for a roast, then visit the bakery for bread and finally make a trip to the fromangerie for cheese. As a result, the food is densely nutritious without the chemicals and preservatives of highly-processed alternatives.
Contrast this to a typical American’s shopping trip. The American will buy bread, packaged lunch meat and individually-wrapped cheeses all in one stop at the supermarket… and can watch these foods advertised while they eat their meal in front of the TV.
5. The French diet emphasizes quality over quantity
Westerners are trained to value quantity over quality when it comes to our food. We buy light ice cream, a flavorless mass of skim milk powder and chemical stabilizers, because we can eat more of it than the deeply decadent full-fat option. We choose chemicals over quality ingredients so that we can eat more of the chemicals, even though it tastes mediocre? This is just messed up.
The French are truly satisfied by quality over quantity. They choose a single square of divine chocolate rather than a hunk of cheap milk chocolate. They choose to split dessert two or three ways rather than enjoy the unsatisfying “light” option all to themselves.
Fortunately, we are hard-wired to enjoy quality over quantity, we have just over-ridden that setting with a preference for the act of eating, not the joy of eating. By eating slowly and mindfully, you can re-set your innate desire for quality over quantity.
6. There is no such thing as sinfully delicious
Mireille explains in her book that the term “sinfully delicious” is a ridiculous oxymoron in French cultures. Food is simply delicious. To enjoy good food is a deserved pleasure. No matter how much butter or sugar a dish contains, the knowledge of that does not diminish the rapture of eating it.
Because they eat without guilt, the French are free to enjoy food and wine to maximum enjoyment. And enjoyment means feeling satisfied with less food. And, because they never feel deprived, the French do not slip into patterns of binging. Are you seeing a pattern here?
7. The french diet includes organ meats
Americans and other westerners wince at the words “sweetbreads” or “liver paté.” Offal – organ meats including brains, livers, tripe, kidneys, heart and tongue – have a key place in the modern and traditional French diet.
Organ meats not only stretch the budget, but they provide key nutrients that we lack by consuming only muscle meats. For example, we need the B vitamins in liver to fully utilize the protein in steak. As a matter of fact, liver is the most nutrient-dense food on the planet.
Paté, a French favorite made with liver, egg yolks, and butter or cream, provides the vitamins and minerals from liver along with the fat-soluble vitamins found in egg yolks and dairy. If you are looking for a nutrient-packed indulgence, look no farther than homemade pate.
8. The French diet is traditional
What is a “traditional diet?” Dr. Weston Price, a dentist with a passion for nutrition, traveled the globe to discover the secrets of healthy, happy people. He recorded his findings in the 30’s in the landmark book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. From the Inuit in Alaska to the Maori in New Zealand, Dr. Price revealed that the diets traditional to each culture, although dependent on geography, followed a strict set of dietary laws. This included a very high consumption of fat-soluble vitamins and enzyme-rich foods. Additionally, traditional diets all saw animal foods as sacred and vital to health.
Obviously, the French diet includes a fair share of white sugar and white flour, ingredients with health-robbing properties. However, their strong digestion (thanks to mindful eating) and traditional, nutrient-dense foods, the french diet in whole obviously outweighs the consequences of the pastries.
The French diet adheres to many traditional diet guidelines. Consider the modern french diet compares to the french diet from the 1800’s… or even 1600’s! We find the commonalities of seasonal and varied produce, artisan breads, local dairy products, and plenty of vitamin-rich organ meats and animal fats.
If we compare the Western diet to that of our great-great-grandparents, we find a great contrast. We’re eating light ice cream, fat free mayonnaise, agave nectar, canola oil, Egg Beaters, soy protein cereal… all with a fair share of GMO’s thrown in. Great-great-grandma would’t recognize our ingredients!
9. The French eat a wide variety of foods
Because the French diet focuses on local and seasonal foods, it encompasses a wide variety of ingredients. Instead of choosing between fresh or frozen green beans in the grocery store, they face the selection of five different types of heirloom green beans at their market. Instead of choosing between light and full-fat cheddar, they choose between hundreds of artisan cheeses at the fromagerie.
A wide variety of ingredients means that meals are exciting and provide a range of nutrients. French children eat what is given to them, although this occasionally entails withholding dessert before a food is adequately sampled. Most French parents would never give their children the option of a hot dog instead of eating the “grownup food.”
10. Wine is an experience
While there are always exceptions, the French don’t drink just to drink. Sipping a cocktail to kill time? Guzzling a beer in front of the TV? L’horreur! The French use wine to elevate food and vice versa. A French meal is not complete without a glass of wine, and a glass of wine is not complete without a suitable food pairing. Alcohol is very, very rarely consumed in the absence of food.
11. The French diet includes raw foods
The French are masters of the Yin and Yang of cuisine. They pay utmost attention to the balance of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy, and hot and cold. In order to enjoy balanced textures and flavors, they include plenty of fresh and raw foods. Raw foods, whether raw egg yolks in a salad dressing or raw frisse in a salad, provide a unique profile of nutrients including all-important enzymes.
The enzymes in live foods actually help us digest and breakdown the food in our meal. When we consume only cooked foods, we can stress our digestion. Traditional cultures usually enjoyed a raw component in each meal and often this was a fermented food which also contains beneficial probiotics.
12. The French don’t count pounds
The rest of the world envies French women for their figures and sense of style. “How can they eat all that butter and wine and stay skinny?” we ask. Well, it is partly due to the butter that they stay skinny (see #14). With that said, they do monitor their weight to maintain a figure that makes them happy.
French women don’t step on the scale each morning. Instead, use the fit of a tight pair of pants (what Mireille calls the Zipper Syndrome) or a tape measure to stay on track. This is the ideal way to watch one’s weight, because scales can’t take into account muscle or normal weight fluctuations during the month.
What happens if the zipper is tight? French women never diet, they simply make compensations. This preserves their metabolism and health in the long-run. Yo-yo dieting and crash dieting absolutely devastates the metabolism, because the body senses a period of starvation and then burns calories more slowly to conserve energy.
If her pants start to feel tight, the French woman will simply cut back on pastries or chocolate for the week. She will never let herself feel deprived and chooses when to carefully indulge, even during this compensation time. Another act of compensation may include eating a lighter dinner after an indulgent lunch.
13. The French don’t count calories, either
Calorie-counting accomplishes three things:
- It de-emphasizes quality
- It falsely simplifies healthy eating
- It promotes stress, not satiety.
Obviously, the act of calorie-counting in its entirety clashes with the philosophy of French eating. The French diet leaves no room for calorie-counting, and one result is a nation of fit, healthy people.
14. The french eat lots of good fats
The French Paradox is used to describe how the French eat copious amounts of saturated fats while remaining healthy with low rates of heart disease. The saturated fat intake of the French actually explains – not mystifies – the health of the nation.
Although we’ve been misled by very poor science in the past, we know now that old-fashioned saturated fats protect health. Cholesterol from egg yolks and butter is an important nutrient, not something to avoid. The eggs, cream, cheese and lard that kept our ancestors healthy keep the French healthy. Saturated fats play a vital role in gallbladder health, hormone balance, detox and weight loss (here’s why!)
15. The French diet excludes fake foods
Americans and other Western cultures eagerly jump on the bandwagon of “new and improved” foods. Why stick with plain old butter when you can buy calorie free canola oil spray? It doesn’t matter than canola oil is a non-food and that butter contains vital nutrients and health-protective properties. Why eat eggs for breakfast when you can enjoy ultra-processed soy protein cereal sold by your favorite celebrity on TV? It doesn’t matter that soy ruins your thyroid and messes with your hormones.
The French don’t fall for “new and improved” when it comes to their food. Because the art of cooking is passed on from generation to generation, the French value traditional preparation methods and the same real foods that nourished their great-great-grandparents.
Do you practice any of these French diet guidelines? Have you ever visited France and experienced the food rituals?
I was born in Paris and spent the early years of my childhood there and understood from a very early age that food was as much about the quality of the produce as the flavours and that moderation and eating times were very important. Although a sweet tooth for many years I have curbed the sugar cravings and only indulge on special occasions. Here in Australia food as become more about gluttony and convenience and there are caffeine and sugar dealers on every street corner open all hours with uber eats dominating the landscape especially through Covid lockdown here in Melbourne. I am astonished at the absence of thought around food choices and health on a daily basis and am looking to establish a business around coaching people to take better care of themselves. Eat well feel well
A French diet food coach sounds inspired!
What are the meal times they adhere to? Or is it a certain amount of hours in between?
I was born and live in Madrid, where the traditional culture is basically the same as the French one, i.e. “The Mediterranean Diet”. We never eat on the run, we rarely use takeaways, and mostly drink wine or beer with food. However, habits are changing. Nowadays there is little time to cook, therefore there are fewer and fewer people who know how to cook, which leads to more ready food being bought at the supermarkets. Also, meals at restaurants are much more frequent and convenient than before. American and British influence on TV and from tourists does not help either.
I think we have been heading to “American style” diet for years, although not too quickly thanks to our traditional food culture, but now we might start changing that trend since we have become aware of the health implications that can be already seen on part of our population.