Whether they throw on just a white shirt and jeans, pull their hair up in a messy bun, or sport red lipstick on a bare face, French women make everything they wear, say, and do look effortless. And eating is no exception. I discovered this when I traveled to Paris a few years ago.
Not against my will, I was quickly thrown into French-style dining: Breakfast was made up of two cups of coffee and an assortment of sweet cakes. Aside from mouthwatering meat and vegetables, rich cheese and bread always landed on my lunch plate; at least one glass of wine was a welcome supplement. Rich servings of foie gras, lamb, or sausage passed my lips at dinner, topped with fresh strawberries and cream for dessert, and endless glasses of champagne!
With all the eating, drinking, and being merry, I thought I’d return to Manila at least five pounds heavier. To my surprise, I came home from my two-week Parisian vacation healthier and thinner! This, I realized, is what people have dubbed the French Paradox: eating good food without gaining weight!
Authors like American neuroscientist Will Clower, who wrote The Fat Fallacy: The French Diet Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss, have experienced this paradox and are spreading the word. After spending two years in France feasting on croissants, butter, cheese, and wine, he returned to America feeling fitter than ever. His secret: eating and living French-style. The French, he observed, do not obsess over their weight or what they put in their bodies. Unlike American women who count every calorie, fat gram, or carb that they take in, Frenchwomen eat what they want, and still stay svelte.
Mireille Guiliano, author of the bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating For Pleasure also adheres to this irony. Originally from France, Guiliano moved to America as an exchange student when she was 19 years old. After one year of studying in Boston, she returned to her homeland 20 pounds heavier. The American Dream took a toll on Guiliano’s diet. With the help of her family doctor who re-introduced her to the joys of French cuisine, the author dropped her poor eating habits—and her weight.
So how do you indulge without the bulge? These tips are guaranteed to leave you pleased with your figure, and chanting vive la France!
BRING YOUR SENSES TO THE TABLE
Breakfast in Paris was a celebration of all my senses: Homemade blueberry jam evenly spread on a croissant hot from the oven; a freshly brewed cup of coffee; birds chirping outside the window of my host’s apartment, and the warmth of someone special to share my first meal of the day with. All these heightened the pleasure of eating. And for the French, it’s always about pleasure.
Incidentally, your sense of smell plays an important role at mealtime. More than 180 studies conducted by Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, show that people who have lost their sense of smell gained 10 to 20 pounds within a few months. Because the patients could not taste their food, their brains were not receiving normal hunger suppressing signals to keep them from overeating. Smell, the studies conclude, comprises 50 percent of the food’s taste.
So the next time you sit down to eat, take a good whiff of your dish to wake up your senses. Go slow and allow every spoonful to tickle your palate. Savor the flavors of each bite: Is it sweet? Salty? Tangy, with a hint of spice? Identifying the different flavors and aromas of your food will spice up your dining experience.
EATING ISN’T A DEADLINE. DON’T RUSH IT
Guiliano and her friends can make eating a simple sandwich a delightful event. “We sit down, take our time, look at the sandwich, admire the bread or the butter on it,” says the author. Needless to say, Parisians take their time at every meal.
While it takes me 40 minutes to order, wait for, and eat lunch here in Manila, in the city of lights, my midday meal took all of two hours! Parisians begin with a starter—usually a salad, followed by the main course (duck and mushrooms smothered in a rich gravy). A serving of cheese is optional (but I never refused it!), and dessert is never ignored. Coffee then follows.
We don’t have the luxury of having two-hour lunches every day, but eating shouldn’t be a mindless routine of shoving food into our mouths so we can quickly get back to work. Eating senselessly and quickly deadens the inner switch that tells your brain that you’re full. Instead, eat slowly, and chew well. In between bites, put down your spoon and fork and make conversation with your lunch buddies. Or stop to sip some water. These pauses help calm your body and allow you to determine if it’s time to stop.
LIFE’S TOO SHORT. CHUCK THE GUILT
I made the mistake of telling a Frenchwoman that I felt guilty about eating dessert, and got an earful from her. Guilt, I later found out, is not part of the French vocabulary. A guilty conscience (“Chocolate is heavenly but is the root of all evil!”) leads to deprivation (“I will not eat chocolate, I will not eat chocolate...”), which leads to a relapse (“Maybe just a bite or two.”), which eventually results in bingeing (“Did I finish this whole bag of M&Ms by myself?!”).
Don’t cut out your food vice completely. “Deprivation,” says Guiliani, “is the mother of failure.” The more you stop yourself, the more you’re bound to backslide, so treat yourself to little pockets of pleasure: Take a bite or two of that rich slice of decadent chocolate cake and let the rich, moist dessert roll in your mouth. A sliver is pleasurable and only turns to guilt when you’ve finished a thick wedge, so the challenge is not to let it reach that point. In the end, you can have your cake and eat it too!
MAKE WATER YOUR CHOCOLATE
The health benefits of drinking water are many. Every cell in your body needs water to function in top form: To keep your joints lubricated, your kidney free from stones, your bowel movement regular—the list goes on. And it doesn’t hurt that water contains zero calories. Guiliano notes that it’s a good hunger-buster. Filling yourself up with water promotes a feeling that you’re full.
Some people I know don’t like drinking water because it tastes bland. To get the minimum eight glasses in their diet, they opt for soda, fruit juice or ice tea instead. But these drinks are at least 100 calories (plus the sugar promotes dental cavities!). To add non-fattening flavor to your water, drop a slice of lemon or mint leaves into the pitcher.
INDULGE, BUT COMPENSATE
Women get struck with occasional food cravings (PMS is a convenient excuse!). While it’s all right to give in to these little yearnings, it’s very important to make up for them.
I remember treating myself to a banana Nutella crepe (the Parisian streets are lined with creperies), and to make up for it, I walked through Champs Elysées instead of taking a taxi back to the hotel (it also helped that cab fares were very expensive).
So, if you’re having a strawberry sundae today, then cut back on dessert for the next couple of days. Stay an extra 10 minutes on the treadmill. If you want to try everything on the buffet table, sample the fare in smaller portions. It also helps to share your treats with someone else. While still satisfying your desire, you’re actually cutting down your intake by half!
DON’T DITCH THAT DRINK
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “In victory, you deserve champagne. In defeat, you need it.” In France, wine is not only for special occasions; almost every meal is served with a glass of red or white.
The French drink wine not to get drunk—they leisurely sip it to awaken their senses and prep their palates to enjoy the food on the table. Too much of it deadens the taste buds and shuts off that inner switch I talked about earlier, so once intoxicated, people end up eating more than they should.
When choosing alcohol, favor wine over hard drinks because it has less calories (i.e. a glass has 104, a piña colada has 262!). Fine wine has also been known to thin the blood and lower blood pressure and cholesterol. That’s another reason to raise your glass and say cheers.
CHOOSE FRESH OVER FAST
Sure, the French feast on rich sauces, red meat, fattening cheeses and wine, but all these aren’t processed like our fast-food burgers, instant noodles, or canned soda. They eat fresh, not faux food, and they painstakingly prepare their dishes from fresh ingredients. This means less chemicals, less preservatives, and yes, less fat.
We Filipinos go for quick meals, which are not necessarily cheaper, but are more convenient. A home-cooked meal using fresh vegetables and fruits from the market is the most ideal choice, but is clearly more tedious to prepare. If you don’t have the time or patience to prepare a fresh serving during the week, then at least steer clear of fast-food meals. Food stalls that offer home-style cooking are the lesser evil in this comparison.
For quick snacks, fresh fruit (served with a dollop of unsweetened yogurt) is an inexpensive choice and is far more healthy than a bag of chips and a can of soda.
GET A MOVE ON
Here’s something Filipinas have in common with Frenchwomen: Loathing the thought of gym workouts. So how do the French stay trim? They don’t go to the gym; they hit the streets. Regular walking results in toned legs and a taut behind and gives the same cardiovascular benefits without hurting one’s joints. On average, French women walk three times more than American women do—which leaves us Filipinos far behind.
Increase your exercise level. Find an area that’s safe and convenient to take strolls in, grab a partner (time flies when you’re chatting with a friend) and walk at least 20 minutes a day. Too tedious or time-consuming? Break it into mini-workouts: A five-minute stroll to the next building, a 10-minute trip to the bank, take the stairs instead of the elevator—it all adds up to calories burned!
If walking is too easy, up the intensity and do something that will challenge you. Join a group exercise class, a running club, or a sport clinic. The important thing is to enjoy that physical activity so that performing it isn’t a chore.
THROW A FRENCH-INSPIRED DINNER
A good French meal doesn’t start when you dig your fork into the food, but long before the meal is cooked. From choosing the dish to serving the last cup of coffee, the process may be fastidious, but it’s definitely worth the wait.
While fixing this home-cooked meal (do it on weekends when you have more time), be aware of what you are doing to prepare the meal. Knowing these details helps you appreciate the meal and prevents you from absent-mindedly shovelling food into your mouth.
Done with cooking? Set the table, paying particular attention to small touches like a floral arrangement or candles. Remember to keep the television off—you’re focusing on your meal, not HBO. Lay out your delicious meals in your best china, so that you please your eyes as well as your palate.
When everything is ready, open a bottle of wine as you celebrate the beginnings of a healthier, slimmer you. Bon appetit!