How I Eat

poulet roti

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.


strawberries & raspberries


Related Links

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)

142 comments

  • My friends, too, are always commenting about how I don’t weigh 30 pounds more than I do (fyi, I am SO not thin, just average… -ish.) They see all the baking and cooking I do and my love for fried foods and anything loaded with butter then just assume that I eat like that all the time! I splurge on good things like that but I do eat simple and healthful things, too!!! And moderation and exercise really are your best friend to make sure you don’t balloon up.

    Just because you talk about food all the time and cook/bake a lot it doesn’t mean you eat all of it then spend your evening chilling on the couch, but I don’t think my friends believe me when I tell them this… LOL

    By the by, David, I totally agree with you about squid being ugly, but when they are breaded and deep-fried (and served with spicy marinara or some kind of spicy aioli), I find them tragically irresistible! Oh well.

  • I love Planter’s peanut bars too and haven’t had one in ages. You must also have a pretty fast metabolism in addition to all of that exercise. It does seem ridiculous that you felt compelled to have to write about what you eat! Your daily diet sounds delicious and healthy.

    • Those Planter’s Peanut Blocks are really insidious, I haven’t had one in years – and now I am craving one!

  • Very similar to what I prescribe to healthy individuals in my nutrition practice. Who knew eating was so simple anyone could do it :) Thanks for the post!

  • My those fresh berries look amazing! I’d choose those over a candy bar any day of hte week, and twice on Sunday.

  • Just curious, how many flights of stairs you climb, how many city blocks you walk, how many miles you cover on bicycle in a day/week? I think the answer must be your weight control method!
    Your musings and recipes are all delightful.

  • Sweet of you to do this. Good homemade food, not takeout or processed and if at all possible a garden from which to nibble. And the good chocolate, of course.

  • @ foodie -

    I have the same problem with portion control. In addition to the suggestions given in a previous comment, here are a couple of things that I find helpful.

    When I make a dessert, I freeze individual portions on a baking sheet and then, when they’re frozen, wrap them in tinfoil and put them in the back of the freezer. Granted, I can still take out multiple packs at one time (and I have), but I find I have much more control than if the temptation is sitting out on the counter.

    I know how many calories I can eat to maintain my weight. Every day I write that number on a sheet of paper and put it on the counter. I then subtract the number of calories of each thing I eat (using a kitchen scale and online calorie counter). So if I want to eat half a pie, fine. The rest of the day will be raw cauliflower (exaggerating, but you get the idea). When I get down to zero, that’s it for the day. There’s always tomorrow to look forward to :) Good luck.

  • I thank everyone who responded to my post. I do drink a lot of water and i know all the tricks and gimmicks, but still i yet haven’t managed the portion control. Carol, THANK You very much for sharing, it’s an enormous insight for me, so very helpful. However, reading ALL the posts on this theme has been enormously helpful and incouraging to me. Carol, i do not mean to be nosy, but what would be your calorie limit? I am 5’7″. I do work out, but my intakes can be paramount in quantity. Thank you everybody for sharing.

  • The article is great, mr. lebovitz! But I have to quote: “I’ll sometimes put ice in wine if it’s an inexpensive bottle”! hahahah Don’t ask me why, but I giggled a lot when read it.

    Although, I’m not a drinker (my metabolism can’t handle alcohol very well) I would put it on a t-shirt just to piss off people, hahahah

    Being an obese under-control (yeap, eliminated almost 30kg or 66 pounds). I know how it feel like. No surgery our pills, just knowing what I’m eating. As you say, If I want to eat, must be the best quality ever. Crappy stuff is a waste of calories (and flavor, most important), hahahah

  • I think what people should realize is its all about quantity. In the US we eat very large portions. Most of use could get by consuming half of what we are currently use to consuming and be just fine and healthier.

    Arthur

  • @ foodie

    I used the calorie calculator at http://www.choosemyplate.gov/myplate/index.aspx – you enter your age, weight, height, gender, and activity level and it tells you the number of calories needed per day to maintain your weight. For me, the number is 1600. I found I had to adjust it down to 1500, because I’m quite sedentary due to a disability, but it was helpful in giving me a place to start.

  • Carol, thank You ever so much! Best wishes&take care.

  • So much of this is common sense, really. If you exercise more or are more active, then yes, you can eat more. If you eat lots of healthy things you will feel healthy. (Not to say that there isn’t some mental health benefits of a good piece of chocolate.)

    I suspect that part of why Europeans are able to maintain a svelter figure, historically, has to do with moving more. When I lived in Germany, we were always out walking because it was something to do, because things were walking distance (within 5 km, typically), and because being outside is good for you. Living in Toronto now, I do a goodly amount of walking (to/from work, for groceries, to explore) and I find that I’m able to eat a bit more of what I want than when I lived in a more car-centric city…

  • Thank you so much for sharing this – very generous of you. Cheers from Auckland New Zealand :)

  • Eating wholesome food rich in nutrients and vitamins could hardly make one fat, of course, calories do matter at some point. Butter, animal fats, coconut oil are all much healthier than modern ‘cholesterol free” vegetable seed oil (too high in Omega 6 and turns rancid easily–bad for health!).

    You have a very healthy approach to eating (also because you are knowledgable about food!), concerned about the quality of food rather than quantity. Dark chocolates, contain much more polyphenols than green tea and red wine combined. Plus moving your body as often as you can helps in keeping you lean. Well done! Cheating and eating ‘crap’ food 20% of the time is all part of a healthy lifestyle, as long you maintain 80% of the time eating real food. That has been my philosophy :-)

    The modern advise on eating low fat food is a failure. Americans eat 50% less fat than 70 years ago, and are eating more sugar, corn and soy oil instead… look at their waistline now … sorry no offence but when it comes to health, we shouldn’t follow the American food and health advise or their food pyramid model. Instead follow what your ancestors eat, wherever you are in the world, East or West, they ate mostly unprocessed food, rich in nutrients and vitamins, and hardly suffer from diseases of civilisation. That is until they started eating modern processed food (check out Weston A. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degenaration and Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet).

  • Totally agree…..
    You forgot to mention that
    YOU DO NOT SMOKE!
    And to put my grain of salt: GET RID OF THE SALT SHAKER

    David, you look great, Keep digging.

  • Yes I am on board with your principles towards sensible diet.People in general are keen to glorify one food group to the others. Carb is an enemy for westerner, yet…in Asia..we eat tons of it every week. Don’t blame rice or bread but put the blame on ourselves instead. The serving size and frequency of eating is paramount. The portion size getting fatter and rounder in restaurant so is our physic. The most puzzling question is…who is the criminal in this never ending blaming games? Pastry Chef? Because creme brûlée you had last night at some michelin starred restaurant was deceptively smooth and heavenly sexy in your mouth?. Or you…who performs slavery towards food; round the clock of feeding and gigantic amounts of calorie. I cook, I eat chocolate, rice is my saviour, bread is often a love story for Sunday brunch. Love all food….corporate them in your body gracefully. Hey….I am like David…so in love with food but my body is not having an affair with fat.

  • I’m a baker. A few years ago, when I started gaining weight despite the physical labor my job entails, I stopped driving to work and switched to biking. I bike 9 miles total, 5 days a week and that is just enough to keep my weight down. My weight lifting is lifting 40 # sacks of flour and heaving huge hunks of bread dough out of mixing bowls!!

  • Ha! What’s the opposite of an ode and can you please write one about ugly squid?

  • A bit of everything and of everything a bit is an excellent dieting philosophy.

  • Too many people these days seem to be afraid of food, or are the opposite and chow down anything prepackaged in a plastic wrap… They simply need to be re-educated about the joys of eating – and living! Good thing for writers and chefs such as yourself, who have a wonderful, sensible approach and attitude towards food.

    If I may add, however, squid can be soooo delicious when cooked properly! Grilled, or in Thai seafood soups… What’s your take on octopus??

  • It’s funny the perceptions people have about eating and weight/body types AND that the focus is so much on appearance rather than on health. Petite forms are often seen by some as being “in shape”… but often nothing is further from the truth… that just because one maintains their weight does not necessarily mean they are “healthy” or “in shape”!

    It is interesting though the different ways people eat. I have a friend who practically inhales his food and seems to enjoy every bite somehow. Then there is my 5-year-old who savors every bite of a dessert, while most children scarf them right down. But during the regular course of most meals, he eats painfully slow. We truly are all so different in every facet of life.

    • I had a friend who wasn’t slim at all – in fact, he was overweight, who did aerobics. One day he said to me, “This is so much harder for me than thinner people, because I have all this extra weight to carry around.” I never thought of that, but he was right – he was working harder than others in his classes. Eventually he went on to become an instructor, and although he didn’t resemble the typical fitness instructor “type”, his classes were always full.

      You’re right that health depends on a lot more factors than just having a certain size waistline or being able to benchpress X amounts of weight.

  • I remember hearing some good advice on the topic (staying thin in spite of being a professional foodie) at an Association of Food Journalists conference. A dietitian said: “Look at your parents, then look at yourself, and don’t beat yourself up too much.” H was saying, basically, that you can/should maintain a healthy weight, but if thinness isn’t in your DNA, don’t go nuts over it.

  • You seem to have a healthy appreciation for food. Good food. I feel the same way, -if you’re going to indulge, -eat the good stuff. I also love that you refuse to eat standing up. I plan on putting that into practice myself. I’ve recently become very fond of cheese after years of not eating my fair share, however, it’s definitely a food that I have no problem eating too much of. A little bit is very satisfying.

  • Touche. Though it may seem pedestrian and not interesting to many, the voice of reason speaks. My mum was born in London and raised in the south of France. Upon marriage and moving to the states she discovered work, box mixes, and American food which she imparted to her children. She kept those “French” habits of choosing wisely, small portions, and lovely ingredients. We kids did not appreciate this until her latter years. This (excuse me) simplistic point of view is prudent no matter your income or food preferences. Thank you for the reminder to do as I know. It’s never too late to make conscious decisions. This last comment is for my benefit only rather than a statement to anyone else.

  • Look, I’m no botanist, alchemist, or professional MD by any means. But I’m going to interject this idea from my travels as they have been vast, and this is one thing I have garnered- every BODY is different. Period.

    Calories are a myth. They are an intentioned determined for a steam engine.

    Each body has different mechanisms and metabolisms, genetic backgrounds, digestive enzymes, and this that and the other- I am thoroughly convinced.

    Currently, I live in Paris. Women here are absolutely obsessed with their weight- always have been always will be, and never will share that information with anyone freely. Thanks to America, they are becoming cursed with our “sciences” of how to be thin. The truth is, whole foods, and knowing how your body functions- what you can digest, and eat, I personally believe, are where the secrets lie. Ultimately, what you eat is paramount. Exercise is subsequent. Then again, don’t listen to me- listen to yourself first and foremost, and follow up your intuitions where possible with medical testing and backing, and use your own judgement paired with trusted medical opinions. There is no one right answer; no magic bullet. Otherwise this all would be a non issue.

    Think about it. Some people need to eat red meat, some people cannot digest it. I personally find that I can’t digest cheese, and I can’t fathom how milk from a cow meant for a baby calf can possibly work for me who does not have three stomachs, and, who does not aspire to weigh a few hundred pounds. But, my French fiancé eats and digests bread and cheese like nobody’s business. Give him some fiber (unpeeled celery, unpeeled potatoes, etc) on the other hand, and our world’s swap sides.

  • I’ve always eaten very well (lots of organic protein, veg and fruit) and I’m not the tiniest gal on the planet. I’m fine with that. I love your style of eating and cooking. I think you’ve figured out the right balance. Thanks for sharing. I’ll take a few of your tips! :)

  • Interesting thread, tks for this article. I just ordered Peter Kaminsky book, flavor dense calorie makes so much sense in this crazy food world. The truth is anyone who is a foodie and who talks and writes passionately about food is usually pretty healthy and in good shape, for the very reasons you mentioned. The problem lays with those who don’t cook and don’t care about food (I mean real food).

  • @ Tinne: “A bit of everything and of everything a bit,” I’ve never heard this saying before, but I like it! A perfect way to live.

  • Love this post! Such common sense. Anything I would add would just be repeating all the good stuff you said…but I particularly love the fact that you eat full fat yogurt…I don’t know why anyone bothers with the low-fat and no-fat kind.

    • In France, a typical yogurt is half the size of an American one (which usually clocks in at around 8 ounces) – plus I don’t eat sugared or sweetened yogurts, since I prefer to add a bit of honey or whatever myself. So I feel fine eating the full-fat stuff.

  • Great post! I think one thing diets (particulatlly in America) do is, as you said, demonize certain foods: carbs, fat, sugar etc. Personally, I think it’s important to enjoy your food. Not dread it or obsessively monitor carbohydrates.

    Also, those berries look divine :)

  • An interesting comment a French friend of mine made when I asked about the different attitudes to eating, food and pleasure between the French and us British: he agreed with everything you say in this article – about eating a little of anything and enjoying good-quality food, wine with dinner and plenty of walking to burn it all off.

    But he also said that French people will go on a little ‘regime’ and switch to salads and no treats for a few weeks if they find the button on their trousers has become tight. He says this is because they are rather vain and want to look good in their clothes. It made me smile. Good to know they have a little Achilles heel.

  • Lovely thread.
    As a slim woman in my early 60s who is mad about cooking and eating good food, I hear the tired remarks about how “skinny” or “tiny” I am all the time…parenthetically, why is it all right to comment on a slim person’s body when it’s forbidden to say, “Gosh, look how plump you are!” Never mind. I know why…

    My (completely untested and made up) theory of French thinness is that, if you have every expectation that everything you eat will be really good, you are satisfied with much less, and don’t feel the need to gobble up everything in sight. I think it’s true of a lot of careful eaters on both sides of the pond.

    And there’s another thing, which we think explains why my husband struggles more with staying at a good weight than I do, and that is that I am not upset by being hungry. It’s just a feeling – it doesn’t compel me to go eat ahead of schedule. He, on the other hand, reacts to that feeling by REALLY wanting to eat something right away.

  • This was a great post which reflected many of my principles when it comes to food. Although I find squid is delicious ;)

  • Love this post!! I have a champagne tour biz in Paris and get asked this all the time as well. I tell people visiting that I truly believe they will actually lose weight while visiting France!

    I say go ahead and eat a croissant or pain au chocolate every morning, enjoy the fabulous butter, the amazing bread, the cream etc. They can do this b/c A) They are eating smaller portions B) They are eating less processed foods and C) They are going to be walking everywhere so exercising more. The cardinal rule is eat less and exercise more and you’ll lose weight :)

    I wanted to comment on your Les Crayeres post but couldn’t. I love Les Crayeres. I run Tasty Side To Life Tours and I help people experience the beautiful Champagne region. It sounds like from the Les Crayeres post that you are a huge champagne fan and I would love, love to take you out to the region and help you taste with some fabulous small champagne producers whom I work with daily!

  • I have been eagerly reading all of your posts and just finished reading The Sweet Life in Paris. I will be in Paris for the first time in a few weeks and am looking for a good cafe/bistro in Montmartre area for dinner. We were planning on going to La Mascotte but think it may be closed for renovations. I have found this to be a harder area to find some place good – not sure why? Do you have a recommendation for me?

  • Hello David,

    I too live in Paris and love the fresh food that I eat and have never had a problem with my weight. You mentioned that you bike everywhere. I considering buying my own bike but my best French girlfriend keeps pushing me to become a card-carrying Velib member. Do you have your own bike? Do you Velib? I’m thinking of getting a vintage bike very soon. Thanks for your advice and suggestions in advance. Merci!