For some reason, people are obsessed with what I eat and weigh and I get a lot of messages that say things like “How do you stay so thin?” or “How can you eat all that amazing food and stay in shape?” It’s not really something that I’m all that concerned about and not something I pay all that much attention to. And as much as I’d like to, I don’t start the day gorging on platters of croissants, then spend the rest of day wolfing down cakes, pastries, and chocolates. People come in different shapes and sizes. I know people who eat well and exercise, that are not necessarily svelte, and I know people who eat whatever they want and are rail-thin. (And according to CDC calculations, I’m overweight.) And I try to make it a point not to preach about how to eat, but just present recipes that I like, which are how I eat and feed guests.
Because I live in France, there’s a fascination with the French “diet” as well, and I frequently get asked about how they miraculously manage to keep the weight off while seemingly enjoying all the rich food in France. A few hints: They don’t snack between meals, portions are smaller, they smoke, diet sodas are popular, and they don’t delight in “extreme eating.” However that’s changing as well in France and they’re catching up to their friends across the Atlantic in terms of putting on the pounds – or kilos.
I worked in professional kitchens starting when I was sixteen years old and was surrounded by lots of rich, heavy, calorie-laden foods. Which was awesome…until I hit forty. Then I noticed myself getting a bit rounder in certain areas, as most men tend to do. Yet I didn’t want to stop eating all my favorite foods. So I made a conscious effort to moderate, and concentrate more on what I was eating (in professional kitchens, you eat to survive and sustain, not for pleasure – and you never stop moving) and when I left the restaurant business, I made a concerted effort to drop a few pounds by being more conscious about what I ate, more diligent about doing some sort of regular physical activity, and I also vowed never to eat standing up again. I eat absolutely everything now (except squid, because they’re ugly), and moving to France, I’ve actually lost weight without going to a gym. I was a martial artist for twenty years (karate and aikido), then I started practicing yoga. I did go to a gym for a while in California, but I don’t have the attention span to stay on a treadmill for more than three minutes, and I find lifting weights boring. (I seem to be only able to exercise if someone is either yelling at me, or telling me what to do.)
Since I do a lot of my own cooking, I know exactly what’s in the foods I am eating. If I go out for a meal, I try to go to restaurants that I know where fresh food is on the menu, not frozen or pre-prepared.
For me, a typical day of eating will be breakfast; toast, salted butter, sometimes honey or jam, café au lait, and orange juice. Mid-morning I’ll often have a modest bowl of fruit or berries, perhaps with some plain full-fat yogurt and granola.) If home, lunch will likely be leftovers from the night before or a big salad with vegetables and some meat, cheese, or another protein in it. If I go out, it’s often for ethnic food (Japanese, Mexican, Korean, or Middle Eastern) or something simple. I have an afternoon snack, or le goûter – to bring that excessively long gap between lunch and dinner – which might be a small pastry or a bit of cake or cookies, some cheese, toasted bread with peanut butter, or if I’m out-and-about, choquettes. Dinner is some protein, vegetables, potatoes or grains, or pasta, then cheese with bread, and a bite or so of whatever sweet if lying around for dessert. I usually drink wine with dinner. During the day I will snack on nuts, dark chocolate, and bits and pieces of recipes that I’m testing.
As mentioned, everyone is different and we all have different circumstances, follow different principles in life, have various metabolisms, go on (and off) diets, are wired different culturally, and all have our weaknesses for certain foods. But although there doesn’t seem to be any magic bullet for keeping in shape, most experts agree that it’s about calories and being active.
(Please note that none of the information here is meant to be medical in nature. If you are planning a diet, or have health issues, do consult a doctor or licensed medical professional for advice specific to your needs.)
Stuff I Do
-I ride a bicycle everywhere that I can.
-I walk to places as much as possible.
-I eat a lot of carbohydrates.
-I try to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. I eat fish, although I’ve taken to eating less, unfortunately, because I try to scope of sustainable varieties. I usually have some form of protein with a meal, such as chicken, cheese, or pork. Although I like it, I eat beef infrequently, and rarely cook it at home.
-I eat cheese. Someone “tsk tsk’d” me recently online for writing about cheese, saying it was “fattening.” But you rarely see an overweight fromager here in France.
-I “maximize” my calories, meaning that if I eat something, it should be good. Bad chocolate cake has the same number of calories as good chocolate cake, and is more satisfying as well so you’re not craving more. (It’s been said that M&M’s are specifically formulated to have just the right amount of chocolate in them to keep you craving more, which is why it’s hard to stop at half a bag.) Food writer Peter Kaminsky wrote about FPC, or “Flavors per calorie”, which is the same principle.
-I eat “good” fat, meaning that I eat ones that taste good, where you’ll get more oomph for the bite. Things like dark chocolate, bacon, olive oil, duck fat, eggs, and good butter all have a lot of flavor and I like them.
-I use fats as seasonings. For example, instead of eating a big chunk of cheese, I will crumble some bleu cheese into a salad dressing to disperse it. I’ll use fried bacon, and some of the drippings, to season vegetables, rather than douse them with neutral vegetable oil. I’ll cut the cream in a dessert and use milk instead, then add more chocolate (ie: flavor) to compensate.
-I’ll sometimes put ice in wine if it’s an inexpensive bottle. I drink wine with dinner, and while I don’t do this when I go out (unless I’m drinking rosé) or I’m drinking a pretty good bottle of wine, if it’s everyday stuff, I’ll put an ice cube in it. If anyone gives you a hard time about it, let them know that Jacques Pépin does it, too.
-I eat dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. When I’m craving chocolate, I don’t go out and buy a chocolate cheesecake, or eat a bag of Oreos; I eat bittersweet chocolate bars and eat a few squares of handfuls every day. I also like chocolates, but I don’t often have boxes on hand (hint.. hint…) But a few chocolates is not a lot of calories and each one packs quite a lot of flavor.
-I’m stressed out. I have a pretty brisk metabolism, the result of years racing around in professional kitchens, and have a hard time sitting still. Which is why many pastry chefs are not overweight. (And pastry chefs don’t eat everything they make, just like bartenders don’t drink everything they pour.) I also am constantly “on the go” mentally, as well as physically, which isn’t so good for my sanity, but does help keep the metabolism moving.
-I try to only eat “good stuff.” If I’m going to eat chocolate, I buy good chocolate. If I’m in the mood for ice cream, I’ll get a quality brand (or make it myself.) Save for York Peppermint Patties and M&M’s (and, of course, Planter’s Peanut Bars) – I don’t generally eat commercial candy bars. As for butter, aside from the stuff I buy for baking, I use it prudently and buy very good butter – and enjoy it immensely. Each and every smear.
-I eat everything and don’t demonize any food (except squid) – but there is nothing off-limits; I’ll eat potatoes cooked in duck fat, lardo, bacon, pizza, salted butter caramel, white chocolate, caramels, and potato chips. But I don’t eat them all day, everyday. If I have a copious lunch, dinner will be something lighter. And if I know I have a big dinner planned, I’ll make sure that lunch is on the lighter side.
Advice from a Slim Cook (Rosa Jackson)
Are the French Too Obsessed with Weight? (Nutrition in Paris)
The French Paradox (The Morning News)
Culinary Intelligence (Ruhlman)