10 Ways to Make the French Diet Work for You

How to fit French diet strategies into an American lifestyle

From the WebMD Archives

Americans seem to be fascinated lately by all things French. There isn't just one book from a French perspective professing to help Americans lose weight -- there are handfuls!

We even have "his" and "hers" French diet books now. There's the best-selling French Women Don't Get Fat, written from the female perspective of Mireille Guiliano. And now we have a French man's point of view in the book, The French Diet: Why French Women Don't Get Fat by Michel Montignac.

So what are all these French people telling us to do? And how can we work this information into an American lifestyle?

A member of the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic editorial team who has spent much time in France recently read French Women Don't Get Fat from cover to cover. She came away with 10 gems of French wisdom. Here they are, along with some tips on how to Americanize each one.

1. Variety, Variety, Variety.

Strive for eating a variety of foods at each meal, and during each day and week.

How to Americanize this suggestion: Venture out of your food comfort zone. Select healthy foods you haven't tried yet or recently, and keep an open mind. Don't just go to the same fast-food restaurants -- try new restaurants (you know, the ones that serve healthy options). And fill your (smaller-sized) plate with an assortment of food items, not just a big helping of the entrée. Enjoy a small portion of the main dish along with an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

2. Quality Counts.

Eat three solid meals a day of good-quality foods. Be selective about where you eat and where you buy your food. Enjoy quality breads, meats, cheeses, yogurts, fresh fruits and vegetables, wine, and champagne.

How to Americanize this suggestion: Perhaps out of financial necessity, many of us have gotten into the mind-set that more is better when it comes to food, Don't buy into the idea that quantity is more important than quality. Switch to high-quality foods that are a joy to eat, and that come with a nice supply of nutrients, too. Walk away from junky foods and make every bite count. If it doesn't taste great, don't waste your time (and calories).

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3. Pay Attention to Portions.

The key to eating a variety of foods at each meal and enjoying three squares a day while keeping a healthy weight is monitoring portion sizes. Try not to overeat any single item or during any one meal.

How to Americanize this suggestion: The "bigger is better" mentality in America translates into bigger portion sizes (and the more food that is in front of you, the more you will eat). So when you see the words "all you can eat," "supersize," "double," or "jumbo" -- run away! Instead, look for the words, "petite," "individual," "appetizer," "small," or "junior" when dining out or food shopping.

4. Slow Down.

Enjoy several small dishes over several courses, allowing your body to let you know when you've had enough.

How to Americanize this suggestion: You don't win when you're the first to finish your meal -- you lose. If you eat fast, you're more likely to eat more than your body needs. Junk food and fast food is everywhere you turn in America, and there's something about this kind of food that makes us eat it fast, too. Think of your meals not as something to get through quickly, but something to take your time with and enjoy. Try breaking your dinner into several courses. Serve salad or soup first, then follow with a small portion of the main dish, then perhaps a serving of fresh fruit. See how that changes how much you eat and how much you enjoy the meal. You can also slow down by paying attention to chewing each bite, by taking sips of a beverage between bites, and by having great conversation or company at mealtime. And try using a fork and knife for foods you normally eat with your hands (such as pizza, chicken strips, or tacos).

5. Joie De Vivre.

That's French for having a joy of life. Enjoy what you eat. Take your time with your meals, eat only while sitting down, and focus on enjoying what you are eating. Lose any feelings of guilt about good food and good wine.

How to Americanize this suggestion: Don't be distracted during mealtime by the television, books/newspaper, or your computer. Eating should be a pleasurable experience. Go out of your way to make each meal or snack enjoyable. Find what works for you: maybe playing classical music, eating outside on your deck, lighting candles, using your best china and silver?

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6. Sensible Pleasures.

If you love chocolate, regularly treat yourself to small amounts of high-quality chocolate. Deprivation can lead to overindulgence.

How to Americanize this suggestion: We tend to be an "all or nothing" society. But there is such a thing as moderation. If there's a food you really love, learn to enjoy small amounts of it when the time is right. Wait until you're truly hungry (or thirsty if it's a beverage), then go to a quiet, special place and savor every bite. If your pleasure is chocolate, you may be happy with a few slow, sensual bites rather than needing to choke down an entire bar. If you adore fancy cheese, enjoy it with some slices of fresh pear (or other fruit) and make it part of your meal!

7. Exercise is Part of the Equation.

Trade in the American concept of "save a step" for the idea of "walk as much as possible." Use a pedometer if you think it will help remind you to move. Guiliano says that there's no need to slave away on a machine at the gym if you just add more walking to your day. She suggests buying some hand weights and using them two to three times a week for arm and upper-body strength.

How to Americanize this suggestion: The typical American lifestyle, with commutes and computers, sets us up for being sedentary. And many Americans simply aren't the "just walk more" type. So find out what type of exerciser you are, and set up everything in your life to help you keep exercising regularly -- whether you need a gym, a partner, a pedometer, a home exercise machine or video, or whatever. Look for both formal ways to get more exercise (gyms, classes, equipment) and informal ones (walking from the far parking lot, taking the stairs, walking the dog, walking to a store or restaurant, moving around while you talk on the phone, etc.).

8. Don't Go by the Numbers.

Pay attention to how you feel and how you look; use the zipper test instead of the scale. Find a favorite pair of pants that fits snugly. If you feel the zipper getting tight, it's time to reevaluate what you're eating, how much you're eating, or whether you've been moving enough each day.

How to Americanize this suggestion: If you're number-oriented, move your scale out of clear sight so you aren't tempted to weigh yourself too often. Shift your focus from numbers on the scale to the numbers on your pedometer. And shop at clothing stores where you usually have a good "sizing" experience. My favorite store doesn't have the usual sizes; it just has 0, 1, 2, and 3.

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9. Use Your Head (or When All Else Fails, There Are Always Trade-Offs).

If you eat a heavy lunch, enjoy a lighter dinner or make it a point to take a longer walk. We all occasionally have days when we don't eat as well or exercise as much as we should have -- just don't make it a routine.

How to Americanize this suggestion: I hate to say it but, "Don't worry, be happy." Don't beat yourself up about a heavy meal or a day without exercise. Just do your best to compensate for it that day (eating light at the next meal or walking after dinner). But don't get obsessed about this, either. If you are hungry, eat. If you haven't exercised yet, try to fit in some type of movement later. Don't make it a big deal.

10. H2O Therapy.

Often, when we think we're hungry, we're really just thirsty. Try drinking a large glass of water before eating a snack and between meals.

How to Americanize this suggestion: Fortunately, Americans generally love water! We like it from the spring, or bottled with bubbles, or with essence of lime or lemon. The best way to drink more water is to set up your life so it's convenient. Keep herb tea bags at work for an early-morning cup of tea. Keep your favorite mineral waters in the refrigerator for a cold treat when you get home. Pack your car with water bottles so you can enjoy water every time you step in the car.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column
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