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How do French Eat What They Want and Stay Slim & Healthy

Updated November 28th, 2010 · 32 Comments

If you actually want to say "goodbye" to your belly, you should take a lesson from the French.

Despite a diet stuffed with cream, butter, cheese and meat, just 11 percent of French adults are obese[3], compared with America’s 33 percent[2]. The French live longer too, and have lower death rates from coronary heart disease. They don’t diet and they don’t spend hours panting round the gym.

Is it really possible? How a nation of alcohol-quaffing, croissant-munching gourmands stays healthy and slim, while a disproportionate number of health-obsessed Americans are obese and at cardiovascular risk? Here it is:

1 Food for pleasure – savor the flavor

French enjoy and savor their food. They are more gourmets than gluttons and tend to taste foods individually. They think of food more as a source of pleasure and less as a way to improve the health. In an international study[1], the group associating food most with health and least with pleasure was the Americans, and the group most pleasure-oriented and least health-oriented was the French.

Americans eat in a different way. It is quite common to observe how people gulp down hamburgers and fries while being busy with other activities like driving the car, making phone calls, watching TV. Unlike a majority of Americans, French are eating until they are sufficed, not stuffed.

Even when it comes to McDonald’s, French eat their food slower. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found ‘from observations in McDonald’s[4], that the French take longer to eat than Americans.’

2 Small portion size

Size does matter. If food is moderately palatable, people tend to consume what is put in front of them and generally consume more when offered more food.

French portion sizes are notably smaller than American portions. And although the French eat a lot of butter, cream, pastry and cheese, the research demonstrates they still consume fewer calories, resulting in decreased number of overweight and obese people.

For example, the standard size individual portion of yogurt in France is 125 grams compared to 225 grams in America. A joint French-American team of scientists from France’s National Scientific Rresearch Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, among other, found out that the average portion size was 25% larger, the same candy bar was 41% larger, and a soft drink was 53% larger in Philadelphia than in France.

3 Red wine

France produces more wine than any other country, only Italy is close. The French habit of moderate red wine drinking with a meal is probably the most known French paradox contributor[5]. Indeed, Louis Pasteur (a French chemist and microbiologist), said: “Wine is the healthiest and most hygienic of drinks.” It is well established now that moderate alcohol drinkers live longer than abstainers or heavy drinkers.

Antioxidants called flavonoids, natural chemical compounds found in red wine, may promote health of the heart and blood vessels.

4 Quality over quantity

Open-air markets are very popular in France. It is common for French to buy cheese from the fromagerie, bread from the bakery, meat from the boucherie, and fruits and vegetables from the open-air market. Surely, it is more time-consuming and sometimes more expensive than at the grocery store, but the products are fresher and of better quality.

Frozen sections in American grocery stores are much bigger than in France. The market for prepared food is not as large in France and TV dinners do not reside in French diet also.

5 Home-cooking tradition

French cook at home more than the Americans. French food is real food – prepared in the kitchen, with time taken to choose, buy and prepare meals. Cooking at home is the best way to reduce the use of preservatives and trans fat, avoid excessive sugar and salt consumption.

6 “No snacking” habit

Americans who snack on sweets and refined carbohydrates raise their glycemic load and, in turn, their risk of heart disease. The French tend to snack much less than Americans, instead, they try to eat more regularly.

7 Water vs sodas

French drink a lot of bottled water instead of sodas. According to the statistics[6, 7], French drink on average 37.2 litres of soft drinks and 146.6 litres of bottled water per person annually. Americans drink 216 and 46.8 litres respectively.

8 Naturally active life

The French are more physically active by simply walking a lot. Daily walking is part of their lifestyle. The streets in France are much more walker friendly than in the US and are full of pedestrians. People, especially in cities, walk or use public transportation.

9 Self-discipline

It’s true that the French deny themselves very little when it comes to food. But they also eat very little of it: a piece of dark chocolate after a meal, as opposed to a large piece (or two) of cake. They know that denial isn’t healthy, but it has to be moderated.

The French have a culture of caution after a period of excess. Eating more one day makes them be more careful the next.

Sources & References

  • 1. Rozin P., Fischler C., Imada S., Sarubin A., Wrzesniewski A. Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: possible implications for the Diet-Health debate. Appetite (1999) 33:163Ц180
  • 2. National Center for Health Statistics FASTATS – Overweight Prevalence
  • 3. International Obesity Task Force EU Platform Briefing Paper
  • 4. Rozin P, Kabnick K, Pete E, Fischler C, Shields C. The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France Than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychol Sci. 2003 Sep;14(5):450-4. PubMed
  • 5. Wannamethee SG, Shaper AG. Type of alcoholic drink and risk of major coronary heart disease events and all-cause mortality. Am J Public Health. 1999 May;89(5):685-90. PubMed
  • 6. Soft drink consumption by country. NationMaster
  • 7. Bottled water consumption by country. NationMaster

32 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amanda Evans // Oct 29, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Thanks for the great article. It really is true about portion sizes. Being from Ireland on my last visit to America I really noticed the difference in portion sizes. We actually couldn’t eat all of the food that was served to us. Also when we went to Paris last year we found the portions really small. It’s no wonder the French are so thin.

  • 2 kellyg // Oct 29, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    I always have wondered how people of other countries manage to stay slim. Now it makes sense. Thanks for the article.

  • 3 Leon // Oct 30, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    I spent years working in the South of France. A great lifestyle and country.

  • 4 Roosevelt Purification // Oct 30, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    This is one of the best article, related to diet, health and weight loss I read in a long time.

    Good research, friend.

  • 5 Vic Shayne, PhD // Oct 31, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Americans eat way too much, watch way too much television and do not exercise nearly enough, if at all. Plus, most Americans eat foods that are loaded with artificial ingredients and sugar. All of this takes its toll on health. Americans have a culture of “more is better,” but this way of thinking just adds to disease.

  • 6 arden // Oct 31, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Perhaps the French paradox isn’t a paradox after all. I would encourage everyone to read a book called “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. It is a critical look at the misinterpretation of studies that has led north amerca to a high carb low fat diet. Despite our general acceptance of these studies and recommendations by health authorities over the years obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic preportions. Much of what you say is true with respect to proportion sizes, lifestyle, red wine etc but I think is is time to revisit the whole topic critically and give our collective heads a shake. What is being done is not working. It is time to bring some good calories back into our lives.

  • 7 Tish // Nov 1, 2008 at 10:29 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article. Sounds like I would fit right in. I drink a glass of red wine every night and very small portions and love home cooked meals. Thanks for the article.

  • 8 Ben, South Carolina // Nov 1, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    yeah, our nation may be the greatest to ever walk the face of the planet, but our eating and lazy lifestyle is going to ruin it in the end. We need to get our act together people…!!

  • 9 Anne Parker // Nov 3, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    You are right about portion control. I am a personal trainer and specialize in boosting metabolism and weight loss. I am a big advocate of portion size and not eating processed foods. Thanks for the info.

  • 10 Vinz // Nov 3, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Hello!! I’m French and I just want to leave a little message to say how surprised I am to read that France is a reference in matter of food. But when I read this article, I have to admit that everything is true and I see myself in almost all the points. Small portions, water instead of sodas, home-cooking, etc. But you know there’s one explanation I’m thinking of: the price! It’s much cheaper to eat his own food with water instead of a snack with a soda… Think about it ;) Really good website! Enjoyed it!

  • 11 Roberta // Nov 5, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I’ve been to the USA a few times and one thing I’ve noticed is that their food has very strong and vibrant colours. I compared the Orange Fanta from the UK with the same in the USA and it’s amazing how much different they are. In the UK it looks like an orange juice, very light yellow; and in the USA it’s a strong orange. I’m not saying that soda is good for you, but you can clearly see how artificial that is and that couldn’t possibly do any good for your health.

  • 12 naveen // Nov 8, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Hi, I’m from India.. I have never been to france, but my experiecnce in US provided all that was told by u. Defenetly there needs to be a food change

  • 13 john // Nov 9, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    good points but 6 is bunk. studies have shown snacking in between meals to have no worse an effect than not snacking

  • 14 Sam // Nov 14, 2008 at 3:45 am

    Hi,

    I’m french too and was surprised that we are described as examples ! That was the first opinion because I never went to US, but I although know they have bad eating habbits.

    After reading, the different points matched very good with reality, even if we don’t cook ourself everyday or if “walking” is not done by everybody.

    An earlier comment certainly pointed out another aspect of our habbits in France : we don’t like wasting money ! So why it more if our portion is sufficient ? Why buy something prepared if I can do the same with better ingredients and a little bit of time ?

    I think the most important is the pleasure of eating ! I heard somewhere that the signal “I’m sat” takes 20 minutes to arrive to head, so every meal should take at least 20 minutes ! That’s often the case in France, and much longer on sundays when we invite someone ! In that case we have the whole thing as at the restaurant : “Apéritif, entrée, plat principal, fromage, dessert, café” => 2 hours minimum !

  • 15 Olga // Nov 14, 2008 at 10:26 am

    Hi Sam,

    “Why buy something prepared if I can do the same with better ingredients and a little bit of time ?”

    This is my approach also. Instead of buying something prepared I prefer to buy better ingredients for less money and cook for myself. Although it takes some time.

  • 16 Marie // Nov 14, 2008 at 10:36 am

    I am a registered Dietitian and these points agree totally with the experience of one of my own patients who lived in France for a time, its nice to see it confirmed. We British may hate the thought of it, but the French attitude to food, eating and activity, is something we would benefit from cultivating ourselves. If its based on taking real pleasure in food – less is more!

  • 17 Siobhan // Nov 14, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    I’m an American living in Ireland. I have to admit that I have never been to France but I think there is a certain aspect of US culture that Europeans forget about when criticizing American eating habits. Of course, I agree that our eating habits are totally unhealthy but its not necessarily because we’re “lazy”. Studies show that the US is the most hard working country with I think Japan in second. We’re anything but lazy, we’re just ridiculously busy and no one has time to spend two hours eating dinner. Yeah if we had a siesta in the middle of every day maybe we could chill and have a leisurely meal. But then we wouldn’t be one of the world superpowers would we?

  • 18 diapalino // Nov 15, 2008 at 11:24 am

    Interesting article, especially in the way it tracks more than one factor as contributing to the French paradox. But something occurred to me while reading the section on walking, a simple observation.

    The biggest difference between the US and France, in my view, is the role of the automobile. The US is built around the auto. We drive to a supermarket and buy food there because it is more efficient — I didn’t say better. We simply don’t have the alternative of walking to the supermarket, and generally not to any market, unless you live in the inner city as, for instance, in Manhattan where every block is virtually self sufficient.

    Another observation, FWIW. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin describes arriving in NY in the early 20’s or so. He was stunned that EVERYTHING was so fast, the example sticking in my mind, because it struck him so strongly, was the simple task of ordering a beer at a bar. How was it delivered? By virtually throwing at the customer, albeit a controlled throw sliding down the bar at break neck speed.

    In other words, our food habits may simply track something more generically American. We’re different. Not that we can’t learn by our cousins across the big blue puddle. But, we’re different….

  • 19 imy3sons@bellsout.net // Nov 15, 2008 at 11:58 am

    interesting

  • 20 Charlie Tucker, Florida // Nov 15, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Take the overweight ghetto and trailer trash out of the statistics and we would be about even. Same thing in Math and literacy disparities.

  • 21 schnitzcopter // Nov 16, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    One factor is time you must remember. Americans often live busier lifestyles I think.

  • 22 jeannette // Nov 16, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    I’m french and I read this article withlots of interest!!…I’m also surprised to see us as example!!!….and the example for us are the greeks!!!!!
    But the most important thing that we learn early is to eat slowly and make sure that all the aliments are well masticated, it helps your body not to furnish to much insuline that makes you believe you are still hungry

  • 23 Rob M // Nov 17, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Big dinners after 6:00 p.m. folowed by TV also contribute to overweight. When do the French eat their big meal of the day? If anyone knows, could you answer back? Could this also be a contributing factor?

  • 24 shedeed // Nov 19, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    this is true; Quality makes difference in every single aspect of life. French knows.

  • 25 Olga // Nov 20, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Rob M,

    AFAIK, in France lunch, called le dejeuner (taken between noon and 2 p.m), is the largest meal of the day.

    And from my personal experience, eating late in the evening may promote weight gain.

  • 26 Siobhan // Nov 22, 2008 at 7:51 am

    In America you can drive to the Walmart 5 miles away at 3 in the morning and buy a frozen turkey, instant brownie mix, a pack of underwear, office printer paper, a hammer, a DVD, a computer and a gun (that list is not an exaggeration at all) all in one shopping trip. There is always something open 24 hours and the idea that EVERYTHING would close on the weekend is foreign *pardon the pun* to American culture. Reading this article and especially the posts has really made me think about the difference living here in Europe. I was thinking of it as a difference in efficiency(for better or worse) but that is just a result of the totally different attitude that Europeans have regarding time. In America its go go go! I have little patience for waiting but European life is forcing me to learn to slow down and be patient. probably a good thing….

  • 28 Health Paradoxes Around The World: When Nutritionists Go Wrong // Nov 24, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    [...] so long ago we have been writing about the French Paradox in more [...]

  • 29 Powdered ToastMan // Nov 26, 2008 at 6:05 am

    Hi,

    I’m french as well and this article was kinda of a surprise to me. I agree with the few people above who mentioned that the cost of living is an additional factor in our lifestyle choices, and it tends to be even more accurate these days. Pleasure definitely represents a major aspect of my eating habits and cooking is not only part of the fun but it also allows you to be more vigilant regarding the quality of the ingredients (which is so important today) and to control what you eat. I think that overweight situation is also controled thanks to self awarness issues (which is not the good way to fight obesity), obesity still not being a widely spread and aknowledged fact. Eating is also part of our culture and habits and it’s very important to us to take a break in order to take the time to eat instead of eating anything while working or doing something else at the same time. Maybe this is because we’re so lazy ;-)

    Nevertheless, I think americans are way more advanced than us regarding the conrtol of unhealthy products which only start to be identified on packagings in France (as Graisses Hydrogénées) but their consequences on health are still not very well known.

    By the way, we envy so much your X-Tra large Max size portions, your unlimited supplies of soda and your all-you-can-eat restaurants… But I guess that would be bad to have such things in France right ?!

  • 30 Matt Mahowald-New PFC // Feb 10, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I think the two most important differences here between the French and American way of life are the fact that, as you’ve said, the French cook more often and drink more water. Homemade, fresh food is packed with vital elements and vitamins the body needs, and water is crucial to all life. When you are eating properly, you will snack less because you are giving your body the fuel they need to make it throughout the day. Besides, it just taste so much better.

  • 31 Sheila // Mar 12, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Gourmet versus Glutton debate rages on, but it’s the journey, not the destination that is important. In Los Angeles you are what you eat. We suppress our appetites and look down on people who eat too much, but we’re all starving in one way or the other. The French seem to have a laissez-faire attitude that aids digestion. We feel guilty after we indulge in something we enjoy. So we’re a bunch of guilty, food-obsessed dieters who don’t age as gracefully or enjoy food as much as the French. Guilt causes it’s own share of problems.

  • 32 Kate // Jul 24, 2009 at 1:28 am

    LOL lets not pick on only American!

    Im Australian and I believe that we are the second largest overweight popuation in the World now! and i have to put it down to our lifestyles.

    Cost of living is very high in Australia so we all work long hours and then come home buggered and cant think of anything worse than shopping or cooking dinner or god forbid exercise!

    But i think governments also have a lot to answer for here too.

    If your apart of the lower socio economical populas that is often over represented in overweight stats what option are you going to pick when a bottle of coke is far cheaper than milk or juice. Or when Australian meat products are cheaper to buy in the USA than in Australia (no joke) and fruit and vegie are also very pricey given our drought and hence limited successful crops (a cabbage is currenty $4.99 a kg).

    You cant afford what you cant afford.