On a recent trip to France, my mission was to eat like a French woman - or at least to find out just how they stay so slim.
This is a country where on one corner, you find a boulangerie with mouth-watering pastries, and on the next, a café where Parisians linger for hours. It's a place known for rich desserts, baguettes made from refined flour, foie gras, fatty meats, and wine. Yet most inhabitants seem to have little trouble maintaining a healthy weight.
It's been called the French Paradox, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. My journey started in Paris and ended up in beautiful, sunny Provence.
One of my first observations was that the French are not all thin. The percentage of overweight people is not nearly as high as in the United States, but they are catching up to us.
In part, the French blame the infiltration of fast food, french fries (now that's a paradox), and super-premium ice cream for their increasing girth, according to French diet expert David Benchetrit, MD.
Still, says Benchetrit, many French women have a mindset that helps them stay slender.
"French women refuse to accept being overweight," says David Benchetrit, director of the Clinique du Poids weight loss clinic in Paris. "It is no secret that they want to be beautiful, in love, and take care of themselves so they look good."
Indeed, Benchetrit says that two-thirds of the women he sees at his clinic have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 23, which is in the normal range of 18.5-24.9.
Another thing I observed is that the French and American ways of life are very different. Eating is a leisurely experience. In the United States, we often wolf down meals in record time or eat while driving or sitting at our desks. But the French appear to have all the time in the world to sit around and dine.
"We sit down and eat for pleasure, using all of our senses," Mireille Guiliano, author of the best-selling book French Women Don't Get Fat, has said.
In America, low-carb diets have many of us saying no to white foods like bread and pasta, but in France, everyone seems to be toting a fresh baguette to bring home.
"You need to eat a large volume of bread or pasta for the calories to add up, and most of the time, French meals are quite light and portions are small," says David Benchetrit.
Duck confit, foie gras, and many other fatty foods are enjoyed occasionally - maybe once in two weeks, he says. Wine is enjoyed regularly, but in limited portions. And you won't find artificial sweeteners in sherbet-colored packets on every table. That's because the French prefer small portions of the real stuff, like sugar and butter, according to Guiliano.
Order a ham sandwich in France, and you may be surprised to get one thin slice of ham and a few tomatoes with mustard on a baguette. It has nowhere near the calories found in an American-style overstuffed deli sandwich, or a cheeseburger and French fries.
And there lies another secret to the French secret of slimness: Portion control.
I attended a child's birthday party where the adults enjoyed espresso and mini pastries while the children played. After having one tiny pastry, my instinct was to go for another until I realized that none of the adults had more than one paper wrapper next to their coffee cups.
I asked the parents at the party to share their insights into French dietary habits and here is what they said: Breakfast is typically coffee with some kind of bread, yogurt, or cereal. Croissants are a treat, and served mostly to visitors. Snacks are enjoyed primarily by children after school; adults usually stick to three meals a day. Dessert is de riguer, but the portions are small -- just like the tiny pastries.
A Trip to the Market
Yogurt is a dietary staple that helps French women manage their hunger. Guiliano says most French women eat one or two yogurts a day, often at breakfast -- and especially after an evening of overindulgence to help balance out the calories.
"Yogurt is the perfect food because it is high in calcium, has carbohydrates, protein, and fat - everything you need in every meal," she says.
In most French markets, yogurts take up an entire aisle, while snack foods like chips, sodas, and cookies have very little shelf space.
It's hard to figure out the nutritional value of many of the foods in the French markets. Nutrient labeling is optional.
Judging from the foods I saw, the average French consumer appears to be more interested in added vitamins and minerals than reduced fat or calories. I found some foods whose labels boasted 0% fat, but not nearly the number of reduced-calorie and fat-free products that line American grocery shelves.
Walking a Way of Life
"French women don't work out; they walk," Guiliano has told WebMD.
This daily physical activity is one of the reasons they tend to be thinner. Having a car in any European city is a challenge. As a result, city folks do plenty of walking, and in the country, they walk or ride bicycles. And when French people walk or drive, they usually are not eating, drinking coffee in cardboard cups, or talking on cell phones.
Another thing I noticed is that it's virtually impossible to find a non-smoking zone, in the city or the country. Smoking is a way of life, much like sitting in the cafes.
Perhaps all that coffee and cigarettes helps dull the appetite and helps explain why the French are slim. Of course, we all know that smoking is unhealthy and certainly not a good way to get weight under control.
Viva la difference. My unscientific mission inspired me to slow down, savor the flavor, taste and aroma of my meals, eat whatever I like in small portions, and keep on walking.