This is one of the questions I get asked the most: how do French women stay slim? Indeed, France is a country where you find boulangeries with mouth-watering pastries at every street corner and cafés where Parisians linger for hours. It’s a place known for rich desserts, baguettes made from refined flour, foie gras, fatty meats, and wine. And despite a predilection for cheese, croissants, and pain au chocolat, regular French women don’t get fat. It’s been called the French Paradox, with France having the lowest cardiovascular disease deaths in the world while the French diet is relatively rich in saturated fats. Some of that’s down to the French health system, of course, but lifestyle definitely contributes.
The clichés about French women is true: the French are generally thin. According to a British study (The Lancet, 2011) using the BMI (body mass index) as a criterion, French men are the thinnest in Europe with a BMI of 26. French women come in second and are ahead of the Swiss, tied with the Italians with a BMI of 25. And while obesity is increasing everywhere, including France, French people are not getting fatter at the same rate as other nationalities. In America, in 2021 the obesity rate is at 36%, while in France it’s 21% (source). France is therefore one of the slimming champions among the big rich countries, far ahead of the United States, Australia, and Canada. But it is not immune to the explosion in global obesity that researchers are seeing.
For years, the question has been asked how French women stay thin. And you may be tempted to chalk this up to the unhealthy French habit of smoking. Yes, the prevalence of smoking among French females is significantly higher than among American women. In France, in 2021 the female smoking rate is 25% whereas in the US it’s only about 15% (source). And it’s been proven that on average, smokers weigh less than never smokers. So it could be easy to conclude that the real reason chic Parisian women stay slim is that they smoke more than their American counterparts.
But the myth that cigarette smoking keeps you thin is incorrect. Indeed, all smokers are not skinny and heavy smokers tend to weigh more than light smokers, according to a 2018 study by the International Agency for Cancer Research. Also, an increase in cigarettes smoked per day was associated with a larger waist circumference and more abdominal fat (source). As a French woman myself, I’m not smocking and my BMI is about 20.
The truth is, several factors play into the reasons French women stay slim without trying. Keep reading below to learn about the 10 healthy lifestyle habits that contribute to how French women stay slim.
10 Reasons Why French Women Stay Thin
1. French Women Walk Everywhere
French women walk a lot and way more than a typical American does. Indeed, about 65% of French walk briskly 7 days/week whereas only about 50% of Americans walk briskly 5 days/week (source). And this helps to burn off calories and fat, keeps muscles toned, and keeps your mind engaged, too. The French lifestyle is pretty active. And this is especially true in cities like Paris where you can walk a lot. Having a car in Paris is a challenge. As a result, few people actually own cars, so it’s easy to sneak in your daily exercise by walking the streets or commuting using the city’s easily accessible bike-share system.
I know it’s not so easy if you don’t live in a big city and must walk to get groceries or to work, so I suggest to get up 10 minutes earlier in the morning and go for a walk or do an indoor walking workout; at lunch go for another quick walk, and after dinner does the same. If you can aim for at least 30 minutes of walking every day, you will see and feel a difference.
Also, the workout culture in France is quite different from the United States. The French value athletic activities in general and instead of doing exercise programs to lose weight, they exercise because they enjoy it. Most French people can name at least one regular physical activity they do, be it yoga, working out at the gym, hiking, biking, dance, football (soccer), etc. But they are usually never doing exercise programs with high intensity and high-frequency, which are often unsustainable and lead to failure. The French are doing exercise because they enjoy it, not because it’s something they have to do to stay slim.
2. They Don’t Deprive Themselves
Incredible food and wine are essential parts of French culture (and the French diet). And French women are known to enjoy rich foods and wine which means they don’t deprive themselves of foods they love. By committing to small serving sizes and really savoring every bite, French women are able to enjoy the foods they want. You can try the 80/20 rule: if you eat healthy 80% of the time you can treat yourself 20% of the time. This allows you to indulge in a delicious dessert because you have already given your body a healthy, nutrient-rich meal.
3. They Eat Smaller Portions
One of the most mystifying things about slim French women is how they stay so thin in a country that’s obsessed with food. And another secret to the French secret of slimness is portion control. French women don’t deprive themselves of the good, rich food their country has to offer, they just eat small portions. If the food is high quality, well-prepared, and delicious, you don’t need a lot of food to feel full. Here are a few tips to help you eat smaller portions without realizing it:
- Use smaller dishes at meals.
- Serve food in the right portion amounts, and don’t go back for seconds.
- Put away any leftovers in separate, portion-controlled amounts. Consider freezing the portions you likely won’t eat for a while.
- Never eat out of the bag or carton.
- Don’t keep platters of food on the table; you are more likely to “pick” at it or have a second serving without realizing it.
4. French Women Eat Real Food
Another thing that might help French women to stay slim is that they don’t believe in processed foods (cereal, white industrial bread, soft drinks, cookies, etc.). Instead, they go for real, whole foods from the local markets and farmers. In France, you won’t find aisle upon aisle of diet food products in French grocery stores. Indeed, the French prefer whole and full-fat products that are typically less processed and usually contain less sugar, which is added to low- and nonfat products to enhance their flavor. It may seem counter-intuitive to eat full-fat cheese if you’re trying to follow a diet, but the truth is, if you’re eating whole foods, you’ll feel full faster, which means you’ll eat less of it.
5. They Shop Fresh Foods From Local Markets
If there is one thing American can learn from the French is the value of neighborhood food markets. Refrigerators in French households are small and food storage is uncommon. French women buy their foods daily or every few days, that is why bakeries, butchers, and neighborhood fresh food markets are all around France.
Fish is from the local fish market, meat is from the local butcher, and fruits and vegetables are from the local farmers. Not only does this ensure their food is as fresh as can be, but buying them from the local market also ensures that they’re getting seasonal items.
6. They Don’t Snack Between Meals
The French hardly ever snack outside of meals. Snacking (or le grignotage in French) isn’t a thing in France, as meals are extremely regulated. People tend to eat at the same time every day (which varies according to each person’s schedule, work hours, etc). Go to a grocery store in France, and check out the snack aisle – it’s tiny compared to grocery stores in the United States.
Snacking is also admonished by the French government. Indeed, it requires all advertising for fast food and snack products to include a warning. One of those warnings is: “Pour votre santé, évitez de grignoter entre les repas“, which suggests that snacking between meals is an unhealthy habit and causes weight gain.
If French women get hungry between meals, they tend to opt for unsweetened yogurt, a piece of dark chocolate (at least 70%), or oleaginous fruits.
7. French Women Savor Their Meal
The truth is, several factors play into the reasons the French are able to stay slim. But what matters isn’t only the food itself, but the way it is eaten. The French don’t rush through a quick breakfast in the morning and don’t lunch at their desks or standing in the street. According to a study conducted by the OECD, French men and women spend over two hours a day eating and drinking, double the time spent by Americans, the quickest eaters and drinkers in the OECD (source).
Eating in France is still very closely linked to a national heritage of consuming good food for pleasure and not only for necessity. For the French, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation. It’s also a time for families and friends to enjoy time together. Eating in France is a social activity.
Traditionally, French people take a long lunch, and food is savored rather than bolted. And we know now that eating slowly is associated with less intake and lower weight, as it gives your gut more time to send your brain chemical messages telling you’re full.
8. They Drink Lots Of Water
70% of the French drink less than 1 glass of sweetened beverage per day compared to 37% of Americans (source). You are less likely to see a French woman walking around with a giant soda than a giant bottle of water. In France, water is the main source of fluids. The French know sweetened beverages (including fruit juices and diet soda) are unhealthy as they contain too much sugar. And one of the easiest ways to lose weight is to stop drinking soda, diet soda, fruit juices, and any sweetened coffee or tea. If you feel you’re not drinking enough water during the day, you can try drinking organic herbal teas.
And no, French women do not drink red wines every day! As a French woman, I rarely drink alcohol; one glass of Champagne at Christmas or for birthdays and one glass of wine every now and then at dinner with friends. If you’re interested in resveratrol (for its incredible anti-aging and longevity properties) that is contained in the red wine I would suggest taking a resveratrol supplement. Note that blueberries, cranberries, and the skin and seeds of red grapes contain resveratrol as well.
9. They Start Good Habits Early
A study conducted by Ifop for the European Fraîch’Fantasy in 2020 found that 2/3 of French people cook almost every day, and 14% cook even more than before the Covid-19 pandemic. What is really interesting is that the oral and/or written “culinary transmission” by parents and grand-parents is the predominant factor in favor of the practice of cooking. Indeed, 83% of those who used to cook at least once a week with their parents, are now cooking every day.
French children establish mindful eating habits early on. They learn to enjoy and eat fresh, seasonal foods in small portions. Children participate in the choice of home-made dishes, ingredients cooked at home, and in the cooking of meals in general. And this is a trend among parents today that is accelerating, as 84% say they cook with their children.
The French have some food traditions that are passed from generation to generation. You’d be hard-pressed to find a French woman who doesn’t cite her Maman or Grand-maman as the ultimate cook influence. And a proof of the reality of this “culinary transmission” is that 78% of French people say they have recipes that they get from their parents or grandparents.
10. They Make Feeling Good Their 1st Priority
Another thing that might help French women to stay slim is that French women know they don’t have to suffer to be beautiful. Any kind of wellness ritual is pointless if it makes you miserable (see my previous article on the french girl’s guide to self-care). And it’s when you feel good, you look good.
That is why French women prioritize pleasure as the key to healthy living. And in terms of food, truly enjoying what you eat, will leave you satisfied and content. By maintaining a diet where you eat nourishing foods that you enjoy and make you feel good while also allowing yourself the occasional indulgence, you avoid a state of deprivation.
I hope my French insights into why French women stay slim have been helpful. I think each of the tips is a really healthy way to approach eating and living, and something you can adopt into your life, wherever you live. If you ask me the question: can I eat like the French and still lose weight? My answer is yes! But don’t expect to lose weight right away. Adopting a French lifestyle takes time. Tackle a few of these suggestions at a time, and eventually, you’ll find that your entire outlook on eating has changed. And even if you can only do a few, try them out and see how you feel.
French Diet Books
- The Parisian Diet by Jean-Michel Dr. Cohen
- Losing it in France: Les Secrets of the French Diet
- The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook
- French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure
- French Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes, & Pleasure
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