It’s really funny to see how Americans seem to be fascinated by the French diet; there isn’t just one book from a French perspective professing to help Americans lose weight; there are handfuls. The most well-known are certainly French Women Don’t Get Fat written by Mireille Guiliano or The French Diet: Why French Women Don’t Get Fat by Michel Montignac. As a French woman, I wanted to share with you my French principles that allow me to be healthy and thin without dieting or exercising. Yes, I’m maybe one of the rare people who is not suiting up for a run, hitting the gym or taking a Zumba class to stay healthy (by the way I’m 55kg for ~1m72, BMI=18.5, Body Fat: 16.5%).
For me, the French diet is not about “dieting” and the word “diet” is a terrible misnomer; healthy food in France comes from moderation, there are no forbidden foods, only excess is looked down upon. Instead, the French diet is more of a lifestyle; preparing and sharing food is one of the essential pleasure of French culture. The French diet is common sense; it’s all about consuming smaller portions, not snacking, and avoiding processed foods. And following these principles allow French people to balance out those rich, high-quality desserts and moderate amounts of wine. So forget low-fat, low-carb, low-taste, and low-calorie; the French diet is full of flavor and high in satisfaction.
The French diet excludes processed foods
Americans and other Western cultures eagerly jump on the bandwagon of “new and improved” foods -any food that has been altered in some way during preparations-. Why stick with plain old butter when you can buy calorie free canola oil spray? It doesn’t matter than canola oil is a non-food and that butter contains vital nutrients and health-protective properties. Usually, ingredients such as salt, sugar, and fat are added to processed foods to make their flavor more appealing and to replace ingredients which are more expensive. Thus, buying processed foods can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar, salt, and fat as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. I don’t think most of the French people fall for “new and improved” when it comes to their food. The French value traditional preparation, whole, and real food from the local farmer that used to nourish their parents and grandparents.
The best way to spot high processed foods or fake food is to read the nutrition label as it can help you to choose between products and keep a check on fat, salt, sugar, preservatives and additives. An international team of scientists headed from the University of Santiago de Compostela has found that
“Reading the labels on food products is linked to obesity prevention, especially in women. According to the study which used data from the United States, female consumers who consult food labels weigh nearly 4 kilograms less.”
Prefer small markets to grocery stores
Usually in France, wherever you’re living there is always a weekly outdoor market close to your house. When I was living in Paris, I used to get my fish at La Fine Maree, my meat at the Boucherie Aurelien, and all my fruits and vegetables straight from the farmers/producers at the organic Batignolles market (occurs every Saturday). I used to go to the supermarket only once a week in order to get staples like toilet paper, cleaning products, dry goods like pasta, eggs, flour, sugar etc. I have the same routine in London; I get my fish at Whole Foods Market, my meat at Barret, all my fruits, vegetables and staples at Earth Natural Foods or at Whole Foods Market. I usually get my bread at GAIL’s Bakery or at the Real Food Market at Kings Cross. Yes, it asks some organization to do the groceries as I’m not buying everything in the same place. Like lots of French people, I religiously visit local farmers markets like the Primrose Hill Market or the Real Food Market as I like to ask farmers which ingredients are the best, what is new and what is the best way to cook their products. Each meal is freshly baked with the foods from the local farmer that I bought the day before and I think it truly elevates every single flavor.
The French diet emphasizes quality over quantity
I think most of the French people know the price of quality food and is willing to pay more for high-quality food as it’s a way to prevent illness and to stay healthy. For the French quality food means pleasure in the short-term and health in the long-term. They always demand high quality from every one of their ingredients: opting for a square of fine dark chocolate over a massive bowl of mediocre ice cream for example. The philosophy of the French diet could be summarized by the well-known quote from Hippocrates: “Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food”. The French tend to pay more for quality food and then end up spending less on healthcare and medications in the future. When you look at other Western countries like the US, the French appetite for high-quality food doesn’t seem to be shared. According to Forbes,
In 1901, according to a 1997 Bureau of Labor Statistics study, the average (American) family spent almost half of their budget on food. Just 3% of that went to meals away from home. Today, we only spend an average 13.3% of our budgets on food–but 42% of that money is spent in restaurants.
So not only the budget of Americans allocated to food has decreased by 74% in one century, but half of their budget on food is spent in restaurants. Compare to most Americans, I spend way more money on food, especially by buying fresh organic fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. A lower proportion of my budget on food is spent on restaurants; I’m usually eating away from home once every week on average. However, I’m maybe saving some money by buying whole foods only, and by avoiding all processed foods which are sometimes very expensive.
The French diet is all about cooking
Every day your body needs a high number of nutrients. Six basic nutrients are required for good health: carbohydrates (sources: grain products such as breads, cereals, pasta, and rice as well as fruits and vegetables), proteins (sources: animal products like meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese and eggs and vegetable sources like legumes -beans, lentils, dried peas, nuts- and seeds), fat (prefer unsaturated fat), vitamins (vegetables and fruits), minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron), and finally water: 60% up to 70% of our body weight is made up of water. Your body will find all of these nutrients in fresh and unprocessed foods, that is why it’s important to start cooking with fresh whole foods.
I grew up in France, in a small village of 10,000 inhabitants where Uber Eats and Deliveroo don’t exist, so in my family, we have always been used to cook. Growing up, I kept this healthy habit; I’m cooking every night, every weekend and every type of meal. A typical weeknight dinner in my house would be a vegetable soup (leek, garlic, onions, potatoes, shallots) with some lardons, olive oils, and herbs de Provence, with whole wheat bread, or some fresh vegetables cooked with olive oil and herbs. I usually make fish once a week, when I buy it fresh from the market. And I’m eating meat at least twice a week, usually organic free-range chicken filet that I buy from Whole Foods Market or directly from my local butcher. Dessert is whatever fruit in season (this winter: apple, kaki, clementines) or homemade cookies, cakes and brioche.
The French eat a wide variety of foods
Because the French diet focuses on local and seasonal foods, it encompasses a wide variety of ingredients. And because French people prefer to shop in small markets and specialty store than in grocery stores, they have much more choice. Instead of choosing between light and full-fat cheddar, they choose between hundreds of artisan cheeses at the fromagerie. A wide variety of ingredients means that meals are exciting and provide a range of nutrients. And as I said previously your body needs a huge number of different nutrients. So if you shop your food locally and you change your diet by following the seasonality, you should eat enough variety of food to cover all the nutrients your body needs.