Forget low-fat, low-carb, low-taste, and low-calorie -- the French diet is full of flavor and high in satisfaction. Here's how eating la manière Française (the French way) can keep you slim and healthy.
Portion control. The French diet can be summed up in one sentence: eat small portions of high-quality foods less often. "American-sized servings are substantially larger than their Parisian counterparts," says Paul Rozin, PhD, a psychologist with the University of Pennsylvania. In one study, Rozin and colleagues found that a carton of yogurt in Philadelphia was 82% larger than a Paris yogurt; a soft drink was 52% larger, a hot dog 63% larger, and a candy bar 41% larger. Does size matter? Yes, say University of Pennsylvania researchers, who found that when given individual servings of snack foods, subjects tended to eat the same number of servings, no matter how big they were.
Think quality, not quantity. How is it that French dieters are satisfied with less? The difference is in how they regard food and eating, says Will Clower, PhD, CEO of Mediterranean Wellness, director of The PATH Healthy Eating Curriculum, and author of The French Don't Diet Plan: 10 Simple Steps to Stay Thin for Life. The French love their food, he says, but not the way Americans love food. "In America, we confuse enjoyment of food with over-consumption." The result: only 39% of Americans claim to greatly enjoy eating, compared to 90% of people in France.
Savor the flavor. The French sit down to three leisurely meals each day. Even their fast-food meals are lengthy compared to the typical American's. A study in Psychological Science found that Parisians who dined at McDonald's spent an average of 22 minutes eating, while Philadelphian McDonald's-goers were in and out in just 14 minutes. Our culture reinforces speed-eating, just as it encourages rushing through everything else. The problem is that faster eating leads to eating more. It takes an average of 15 minutes for your brain to get the message that your stomach is full, which means that eating slowly makes it more likely you'll stop at a point where you're "satisfied" as opposed to "stuffed."
Get real. It's easier to eat slowly when your meal actually tastes good, so the French diet shuns processed foods in favor of anything fresh and real. Breakfast is small: bread, cereal, or yogurt with fruit and granola, and coffee. Lunch and dinner include small portions of meat, vegetables, and some type of starch, with a piece of cheese and coffee to finish off the meal. Foods that are a staple of the French diet include full-fat cheese and yogurt, butter, bread, fresh fruits and vegetables (often grilled or sautéed), small portions of meat (more often fish or chicken than red meat), wine, and dark chocolate.
Make meals a priority. An important element of the French diet is eating meals at the table as a family, Clower tells WebMD. In a recent study of 766 men and women in France, researchers found that nearly two-thirds reported eating together as a household on a daily basis. American families who eat dinner together tend to eat more vegetables and fruits, and less fried foods, soda, and foods containing trans fats than those who rarely or never dine together, studies show. Conversing with family or friends keeps your mouth busy talking instead of chewing, allowing you time to realize you're full. To reap the benefits for yourself, set a regular time for dinner where you turn off the TV and the computer. If you're dining alone, enjoy the company of a good book or beautiful music -- both will help you relax and slow down.
Plan on seconds. The French typically eat in courses -- appetizer, entree, salad, dessert, cheese, and coffee. But they don't pig out. They have no reason to, because they know another course is coming. At home, Clower suggests serving yourself an amount that looks like not quite enough, while planning to go back for seconds. Eat slowly, giving your brain time to feel full, and you'll often find you've had enough. If not, you can have seconds guilt-free, since that's what you intended to do from the start.
Take studies with a grain of salt. With new research emerging every day, it's easy to get caught in a cycle of bad food versus good, Clower says, whether the food in question is eggs, chocolate, or carbohydrates. But food is neither good nor bad for you -- what matters is the amount you eat. Because we've focused on making food the bad guy, we've become afraid of food, he says. The French, on the other hand, aren't swayed by conflicting media reports. Their knowledge of food comes from their traditions -- what their parents and grandparents ate. And because they don't fear "bad" food, they are less likely to deprive themselves, so it's easier to eat just a little without feeling guilty or binging and eating too much.
Enjoy your vin ... Red wine, a staple of the French diet, is bursting with health benefits. Besides being good for your heart, it may also aid in the fight against gum disease, a Canadian study reports. And according to Danish researchers, people who buy wine tend to buy healthier food than those who purchase beer. Searching for a way to stay svelte? Research shows that light to moderate drinking may help. The scientists looked at over 8,000 subjects, and found that those who consumed one or two drinks a few times a week were less likely to be obese than those who didn't drink. Over-imbibing didn't help, however -- having four or more drinks per day increased the risk of obesity by 46%. The French enjoy small portions of alcohol, as well as food. (One to two glasses per day, says Clower -- not one to two bottles.)
... But don't drink alone. If you do drink alcohol, follow the French diet, and consume it only with meals. Even light-to-moderate alcohol consumption can increase your risk of high blood pressure if it's done outside of meals, a study in the journal Hypertension reports. And alcohol on an empty stomach can dissolve your inhibitions, leading you to eat much more than you'd planned.
Do what you love. Forget slaving away at the gym -- French people stay fit simply by living their daily lives, which seldom involve hours spent stuck in traffic. Instead, they walk or bike where they need to go. And they walk because they enjoy it, not because it's something they have to do to stay fit. An American study found that people who exercised to lose weight or tone up spent about 40% less time exercising than those who exercised for reasons beyond dropping pounds, such as reducing stress, spending time with friends, or increasing their well-being. "A desire to lose weight or shape up may get you started on an exercise plan," says lead author Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, a psychology researcher at the University of Michigan, "but it's often the intrinsic factors, such as simply enjoying what you do, that determine if you'll keep up with the activity over time." Do what you love -- whether it's tennis, dancing, biking, or horseback riding, and you'll reap the rewards of a strong body and healthy heart.
Have a happy ending. The French diet leaves room for sweet indulgences like full-fat cheese and rich, dark chocolate. Clower suggests ending your meal with a bite of one or the other, a concept he calls the "ender." The food you choose has to be good, though, something that actually makes you groan with the enjoyment of it, he tells WebMD. Take a very small amount, the size of your thumb, perhaps, and eat it slowly, drawing out the experience as long as you can. Completing your meals with an "ender" helps cut cravings, so you have no need for snacks.
Snack smart. The French diet is low on snacks. On the rare occasions when they do snack between meals, people in France tend to choose bread, cheese, yogurt, and fresh fruit as opposed to cakes or candies, one study finds. When cravings strike between meals, remember to choose only fresh, real foods -- they're often just as convenient as highly processed products. And eat your snack slowly and mindfully, free of guilt. Remember, if it's made from primary ingredients, it's all healthy, Clower says -- just don't eat too much.
Published January 2007.