Why French Women (and Men) Do Get Fat

Just about everyone coming to Paris asks me if I’ve read “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano.
No, I haven’t read it, and I’m kind of sick of hearing about it, because many of the answers just seem all too obvious. Especially one of the reasons; it’s because they smoke.

Is the alarming rise in American obesity aligned to the fact that about 20 or so years ago, people in America began to quit smoking? If you’ve been to Europe, you realize lots of people still smoke. (And I’m not sure any government wants too many to quit smoking, due to the huge taxes on cigarettes.)

But to say that there’s something that the French women know that American women don’t is rather silly. In America, people drive just about everywhere. Think when was the last time you walked to the store to buy groceries (and lugged them home?) And think about the staggering array of candies and fast-food available in ‘drugstores’ in America. And just how many calories are in that jumbo smoothie? (Answer: About 50% of your daily requirement.)

But for some reason, I wonder why Americans think there is some magic reason for the French being so slim? True in cities worldwide (and in American cities as well) many are preoccupied with appearances. But in America, the question remains why diet books are so popular, gyms are everywhere, and none of us are getting any slimmer. I loved the look on a friend’s face here in Paris when I told her that people get up at 5am in America to work out at the gym.

So here are some observations why French women, and men, are (sometimes) in better shape than their American counterparts:

1. There is more of an emphasis on quality, not quantity. Unlike in American, in France, fast-foods and soda are very expensive while fresh foods and wine tend to be cheaper. It’s expensive to eat healthy in America.

2. Meals are much lighter; there is often only one large meal per day. Many French people will have soup or a salad for a meal, unless dining in a restaurant.

3. People walk a lot. Even if you take the métro, there’s plenty of stairs to contend with. For example, these are the stairs to my apartment. Imagine lugging 4 bottles of wine, 6 liters of Badoit water, and 10 kilos of flour up there!


(Ok, those aren’t really my front stairs…)

But just imagine how much more exercise you’d be getting if you walked to the gym (to use the treadmill) or walked to work (to sit behind a desk all day.) Still, it does add up.

4. Quantities are smaller. I’ve seen French people cutting up a single chicken wing with surgical precision, taking all the time in the world.
And consider a container of yogurt. French yogurt is about 4 ounces, half the size of their American counterparts. And for the most part, French people eat whole-milk yogurt ‘nature’, with no sugar added. Portions in America are huge.

5. There simply isn’t the culture of ‘always eating’ in France. I recently read an article about fast-food restaurants inventing new things for Americans to eat while driving. Are we all that busy? Cookbook author Marion Cunningham once said to me, “Everyone’s always telling me that they’re so busy..but I’d like to know what’s everyone so busy doing?”

6. And finally, people are not all the same size. Thankfully, most women don’t resemble Paris Hilton (scary!) or Anna Nicole-Smith (scarier!) Still, even in France, there’s more and more people that could perhaps walk a bit more, and consume a bit less.

I’m often asked how I manage to stay in shape eating all the fabulous foods around me. Well, for the most part, when I indulge in a croissant, for example, I’ll eat the best croissant I know of (the ones at Au Levain du Marais at 28, blvd Beaumarchais near the Bastille come to mind.) If I want chocolate, I don’t bother with a big, rich chocolate dessert. I’ll eat a few squares of the very best, most bittersweet chocolate I know of.

Ok, off for a walk to Berthillon for ice cream…

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  • May 2, 2005 8:48pm

    I have been enjoying checking in on the blog- I especially love the pictures you have been posting. Those sausages with nuts almost got me on a plane. I also appreciated your thoughtful discourse on our American fatness. It is a sorry state of affairs when eating simple foods has become a luxury . I am also always amazed at what little regard people have to the origins of their food. all those “Proud to be American” bumper stickers out there in the parking lot while the owners are inside buying apples that have flown in all the way from New Zealand? When I live in a region known for its apples? Meat from Argentina? Tomatoes from Chile?
    I’d better not get started…
    Thanks for the culinary distractions. I would be willing to forgo my local foods if you could hook me up with some of those Kouign Amann- They look breathtaking.
    Greetings from the East

  • Jill
    May 3, 2005 3:52pm

    You reminded me about my recent chocolate find. I also like bittersweet chocolates. I thought the 70% cocoa chocolates were the darkest, until I found an 85% cocoa chocolate bar. It’s barely sweet, but is so yummy and has wonderful antioxidants without the sugar crash. And I only need a small square to be satisfied. Maybe someday I can compare them to the French chocolates…

  • May 6, 2005 2:23am

    Hi Jill: Glad you’re finding some good dark chocolate! Many of the high percentage bars (over 70%) are very intense. Michel Cluizel in France makes a 99% bar with a touch of sugar, citrus zest, and spices called Infini Noir (available online at http://www.chocosphere.com) but not many people can tolerate it. I love it.
    ScharffenBerger (http://www.scharffenberger.com) has a new 81% bar you might like. I recommend the best way to enjoy a high-percentage bar is to chew it slightly, then let is dissolve in the mouth, since that releases less bitter taste components.