If you have ever eaten at a French restaurant, or watched Gabriel Gate on the Tour de France coverage, or been lucky enough to visit France, you may have noticed that they eat beautiful, fresh, amazing food. First impressions of French food don't usually remind you of healthy eating, but their everyday way of life is conducive to good health and managing weight well. The graph below compares the trends in obesity in different countries. Many countries are on the increase, including France, but they are starting at a lower waist measurement, and are a long way from catching the US or Australia. Remarkable really when you think of all those croissants, pastries and creamy sauces. How do they stay on the slim side of this graph, with an obesity rate about half that of Australia?
Obesity trends in selected OECD countries, source: www.oecd.org/
1) Small portions
Number one habit of the French that works every time - small portions. I truly believe that how much we eat is more important than what we eat when it comes to weight management. In France they enjoy their pastries, breads (white!), cream, cheeses, wine and rich, rich sauces but they also eat salads and vegetables. Most of their food is served petite.
2) Enjoy and savour food - eat slowly and sit
Everyone is busy and it seems very few family meals are enjoyed at the traditional dining table, sharing news of the day and a delicious home-cooked meal. The French have refined the art of sitting down (often at a café facing the footpath) to enjoy food. French children are more likely to sit down to a hot lunch rather than a sandwich. When we eat on the run we usually eat quickly and don't have time to think about the flavours and textures, or how much we are consuming. If you put your food on a plate you can see exactly how much there is, and using utensils also helps to slow down the rate of consumption. If we are eating while doing something else, like working on the computer or sitting on the couch in front of the tv, then we are also eating mindlessly and this increases the speed we eat and the likelihood of over-eating. Sitting down to eat a meal and focusing solely on the food and our dinner companions is worth the time and effort.
3) Meticulous preparation
French people take the time to eat, and perhaps this is because they are admiring what they are about to enjoy. Just think of a French pattiserie, the structure and artistic appeal is of equal importance to flavour. Most enjoyment of food is in the first couple of bites, and in France they recognize this. What is the point of having a huge piece of chocolate cake, all the one flavor, when you can have a range of different flavours and food experiences? Nothing is just slapped onto the plate in France, pride is taken in food preparation and presentation. Allocating a small amount of time to improving your food skills and making food look nice can make eating so much more fun, and help your health and weight at the same time.
4) Mealtimes are for eating
It seems that the French eat their food at mealtimes and don't rely on too much snacking for their daily nutrients. Eating a 'proper' meal at lunch may mean that hunger in the afternoon is less of an issue? Three square meals per day won't suit everybody, but it may be a useful strategy for reducing overall calorie intake.
5) Good habits start early
Most of the food habits described above begin during childhood in France. The child obesity rate in France has historically been one of the lowest in the world, while in other developed countries children are becoming more and more overweight. If you want to learn more, check out this post by Karen Billon French Kids Don't Get Fat which is a terrific insight into the eating patterns of French children.
Although we can't all move to France to live, we can make the effort to understand some of their everyday habits and apply them to our own lifestyles and eating patterns. Portions really are the key, whilst enjoying a range of nutritious foods eaten for pleasure. Bon apetit!!
Lisa Middleton is one of Australia’s most experienced Sports Dietitians. Lisa has spent over 15 years advising some of the nation’s most elite athletes and teams across a range of sports including VIS athletes, the Essendon, Hawthorn and St Kilda AFL Football clubs, Melbourne Vixens Netball, Melbourne Storm Rugby League and Melbourne Victory Football clubs throughout grand final and premiership years.