Monday, March 9, 2009

French Women Don't Get Fat - The Myth Unveiled

After about six weeks of living in Paris during my semester abroad, I began to notice something rather peculiar- everyone on the exchange program (myself included) seemed to be getting leaner by the day. What was more bewildering was that there had been no drastic change in our eating habits or any sudden adoption of a smoking ritual for the sake of full cultural assimilation. On the contrary, we were all being treated to 3 course meals, either by our host families or in the arrays of restaurants and cafés from the 1st to the 16th quarter. So what was happening to us? Were we magically being morphed into the slender silhouettes of teenage French girls who as they become women never seem lose their adolescent frame? To this question, Mireille Giuliano, former executive of Veuve Clicquot and LVMH, offers a few explanations in her best-selling book French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure. A synopsis or other form of oversimplification cannot do this truly witty, interesting, and non-dogmatic piece of writing any justice, so I will simply attempt to recall the points that stood out the most to me while I was transitioning into the habits of a French woman.

click the book cover to visit the author's website

Generally speaking, French women seem to be blessed with good genes. They don’t diet, they’ve never seen the inside of a gym, and they are constantly eating baguettes. Yet they don’t get fat. Despite our tendency to regard them as having a superior genetic make-up, Giuliano explains that it is not by good fortune, but rather by fortunate habits that French women are able to stay slim sans effort. A fundamental difference between the American and the French way of burning calories is physical exercise or a lack thereof. In Paris, for instance, the ease with which public transportation can be utilized makes having a car highly impractical. Therefore everyone either walks to their destination, takes the metro (which requires a lot of walking through tunnels and hiking stairs), or rents a vélib (public bicycles). Simply put, they exercise without even thinking of it. Elevators are also rarely spotted in French buildings meaning that if you live on the 13th floor of your building, you will most likely need to trek up at least 14 flights of stairs, multiple times a day. I for one underwent the grueling task of always having to climb up to the 15th floor each time I went to visit a friend, but as I got used it, it stopped feeling like work. So you see, in the US, gyms are mainly a simulation of the day by day habits of French people and because these habits are embedded into their routine (no change of clothes, no sneakers and no extra shower) it’s not work. In the book, Giuliano offers some tips on incorporating these “non-exercise” exercises into your daily habits such as deliberately seeking out stairs to climb and shunning all elevators. Oh, such discipline.

HERE French Women Don’t Get Fat discusses how these women have been culturally conditioned to think about food in a way that is more favorable to attaining and maintaining a slender figure, such as learning to appreciate the flavors of fresh ingredients rather than obsessing over the calorie count of a meal.

The mentality towards food is another differentiating factor of French vs. American eating habits. Suggesting no fads and no irrational exclusion of carbohydrates, Giuliani emphasizes the importance of using fresh seasonal ingredients to create wonderfully flavorful meals. In contrast to the American food market, which is bombarded with processed, packaged, and chemically enhanced produce, French foods tend to be simple and more natural, thus less harmful to your system. The principles she advocates are very retro; for instance, eating in moderation. French women also eat meals made up of diversified content; some greens, a protein, and a carbohydrate (each ingredient is a star on its own). The combination of all food groups even in the smallest portions leads to a higher degree of satisfaction and satiation. Exclusion of a certain food will only lead to a more intense craving of it. As an avid connoisseur of food and wine, Guilano also communicates the pleasures of eating delicacies such as oysters that she frequently complements with a glass of champagne (Veuve Clicquot most likely), a combination that is as high in gratification as it is low in calories.

Despite our newly modernized version of conventional wisdom, three course meals are essential. French Women Don’t Get Fat claims that sitting down to have a meal with wine, chatter, and a constant change in tableware makes the event more ceremonious and thus more anticipated (you’re also less likely to eat between meals). Although these meals tend to be three courses or more, they are extremely small in portion (French women would probably fall over their seats if they were ever to be served what we consider to be a normal plateful of pasta from Red Lobster). For me, it took a while to adjust. During the meal, I would find that each course was never filling, but by the time desert was plated (yoghurt, fruit, or a cheese platter) I realized that it was such a delightful and refreshing finale to the overall-meal. I no longer felt like I needed another crepe. More interestingly, I began to appreciate the feeling of not being overly full substituted with the fulfillment of having had a meal that caters to every dimension of my cravings.

The book is wonderful. Giuliani goes into more detail about tips on how French women stay thin such as never snacking (they just don’t eat between meals…it’s crazy), favoring dark chocolate over milk chocolate, and eating beautifully baked baguettes that are surprisingly low in calories ( baguettes in France tend to have a thinner crust and airier middle than those here). Carbohydrates are not your enemy!!! The book is also decorated with a ton of recipes after each chapter or segment such as Dr. Miracle’s leek soup. Unlike other books, French Women Don’t Get Fat doesn’t provide a magical diet. Instead it reminds us of how food used to be approached before diets and fads called for eradicating proteins, banishing carbs, and acquiescing to weird concoctions of lemon, maple syrup and God knows what else.


  1. Interesting post. I live in Spain where eating habits are similar to those in France. Whenever I go back to the States and walk into a supermarket I am both astounded and dismayed. No wonder people are so fat!

  2. Nice post! yesterday i found another great video post about womenfitness. Here is the link
    Women Exercise



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