Slow down and do as the French do and invariably you’ll be healthier and thinner. According to a recently released study conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, the French spend more time eating and drinking than any of the world’s most prosperous nations. In addition to devoting two hours a day to eating, they average nine hours of sleep each day.
Not that some French aren’t becoming heavier. They are, and it’s because some of the younger generation have adopted more than a few of the U.S.’s bad habits: e.g., eating junk food, buying more pre-packaged and processed foods such as potato chips, and drinking more Cokes than water. Even though they drink less wine, beer consumption has increased.
However, the French tend to be more physically active and not necessarily due to spending hours in a gym—although that’s on the rise as people are pumping iron and running in place. Walking is a way of life even if people live in Paris and take the métro.
Métro stops are generally no further away than five minutes apart. But walking up and down the stairs burns calories. And if you’re in one of the larger métro stations, such as Châtelet, Concorde, or Étoile on the Champs-Élysées, by the time you walk from one line to the next, you may have walked nearly half a mile.
Tourists are usually amazed by how fast the French navigate subway stations. People are eager to get in and out and to their destinations. Sure, you can stop and listen to some of the (licensed) musicians and frequently hear pretty good classical music. There will always be a hat, basket, or bucket to drop some coins. More than likely, you’ll hear music that sounds as if a band comprised of the ubiquitous Peruvian pan-pipers is performing, and if you haven’t already done so, you can buy the generic CD.
It wasn’t so many years ago you’d never see the French eating on the run. That’s changed. Now, most French bakeries have a section of sandwiches available for carry-out. They’re generally made from scrawny baguettes. Skinny doesn’t do them justice: a more accurate description would be bulimic with one nearly transparent slice of ham and one of cheese and voilà, the idea being that you don’t have to open your mouth very wide to eat it.
American delis, sandwich shops, and carry-outs of all kinds astonish the French. When French friends accompany me to one, their eyes glaze over when they see the size of the sandwiches. They’re unable to believe how thick they are and that someone could possibly eat so much in one sitting—or standing. Remember, most French people don’t know about doggie bags in spite of being a nation of dog lovers.
In addition, most French people tend to eat meals with utensils. It’s considered a faux pas to eat pizza by picking up a slice rather than using a fork and knife—ditto a burger. Many people who come to France on business are shocked to see how fastidious their dining companions tend to be, and it’s smart to take your cues from them so as not to be perceived as lacking table manners.
Some other reasons the French tend to be thin: Rather than piling everything on one plate (and you’ll rarely see an all-you-can-eat buffet in France), meals are comprised of courses. It makes for a lot of plates, but a first course, a main course, another plate with salad and a sliver of cheese plus a dessert (tiny to be sure), give people the sensation they’ve eaten a lot even with rigid portion control. Eating this leisurely way takes time—and time is what the brain needs to register the food you’ve put in your stomach and tell you to stop it now. And there’s a bonus: when dinner is over, there are a lot of dishes to wash up, and that burns up calories.
Studies conducted at Penn State University and Cornell have repeatedly documented that the more food that’s served on a plate, the more people will eat. Perhaps too many Americans were raised as members of the clean plate club. Most people don’t get the signal to stop eating if there’s food left to be consumed—rather like goldfish that will eat until they explode.
Even though Americans believe that the most essential meal of the day is breakfast (bring on the cereal, toast, jam, and eggs), the French generally grab a cup of coffee and a tartine (a piece of a baguette with a light smear of butter) and that’s how they begin their day.
Few French snack between meals. Plus, if they’re having an apéritif before dinner, it will be accompanied with a few olives, perhaps some nuts, but not a dinner before dinner. Americans tend to set out platters of hors d’oeuvres so you’ve consumed more than your fair share of calories before even sitting down for the meal.
Time will tell whether or not the French will adopt America’s bad habits when it comes to eating. The one given is that the more affluent the French are, the thinner they tend to be. I’ve always believed French females are born without hips and thighs and it’s in their genes. That’s one way of rationalizing why Parisian women wear size six (or smaller) pants—and, if will make you feel better, you can believe that too.
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