The French Secret for Staying Slim
You’d think with all the bread, pastries and rich sauces that the French would have a weight problem. But according to the World Health Organization’s 2022 statistics, obesity rates for the French are 21.60 percent compare to the US. at 36.20 percent. Although, with the growing popularity of fast food, the French obesity rate has increased from 17 percent in 2009, it’s still noticeably lower than the US.
So how is this possible when the French eat all that rich cheese and freshly baked croissants and the average person consumes around 500 glasses of wine per year? This question is often referred to as “the French Paradox.”
Eating good quality food is an essential part of the French culture, and French people do not deprive themselves. If they want to have a dessert, which is often the custom, they have a dessert — with no need to feel guilty. So how do they stay so slim? One of the key differences in eating habits often sited between French and Americans is that the French don’t tend to overindulge or overeat. They eat with moderation.
What I’ve observed in the land of wine and cheese is that it’s far easier to eat less in France because moderation is deeply rooted in the French culture.
Built-in portion control
From supermarkets to restaurants, the way in which food and drink is packaged and served in France provides built-in portion control.
My favorite section of a French supermarket is the refrigerated desserts aisle — and yes, it’s often one side of an entire aisle. There you’ll find every dessert imaginable: chocolate mousse, caramel butter fondant, panna cotta, lemon tarts, rice pudding, strawberry tarts and crème caramel, just to name a few of my favorites. But they are all in tiny containers of around 3.5 ounces or less. So you can enjoy a little sweetness on the tongue after your meal without the guilt.
I love the way French yogurts are packaged in small 125 grams (4.4 ounces) containers. Compare that to the typical 5.3 or 6 ounce "small" containers in the US. In France, I’d have one small container of yogurt with my muesli and fresh berries in the morning. In the US, I'm sure the several scoops I dish out of a 35.3 ounce container each morning are a lot more.
Supermarkets even sell tiny baguettes, which are perfect for one person. And when you order a cup of coffee with steamed milk, it's smaller than a US café au lait and a fraction of the price.
Smaller portions in restaurants
Meal portions in restaurants are smaller than in the US. While you can enjoy the full menu du jour including an entrée (appetizer), the plat (main dish) and dessert, and sometimes a cheese plate and wine, restaurants also allow you to pick and choose. You can have just the entrée and plat, the entrée and dessert, or the plat and dessert. Nobody is forcing or encouraging you to eat more than you want. In the US, portions are so large I often split a meal with a friend or take half of it home. Yet, having a larger plate of food in front of me, can lead to eating more than I should.
Smaller glasses of wine and beer
This built-in portion control extends to wine and beer as well. Whether you are in a restaurant in Paris or at a neighborhood yard sale (a vide-grenier) there are plenty of spirited libations to enjoy. However, the standard wine and beer pour is much smaller than what I typically receive in the US. It’s also a lot less expensive. In many restaurants you have the option of ordering a larger glass if you’d like, but the standard is a small glass of around four ounces. You can always order a second round. I enjoy having the smaller glass of wine with my dinner and often find it’s just as satisfying as a large glass — without the extra calories.
Valuing quality over quantity
Another reason the French are good at moderation is that their culture values quality over quantity. Better to have a small portion of high quality, locally grown food than mass quantities of lower quality fast food.
You can see that for most Americans the opposite is true. It's evident by watching restaurant television commercials that tout bigger is better. Restaurants wouldn’t spend money advertising if their messaging didn’t pay off. Bigger and bigger burgers with more bacon than can possibility fit on a bun. Grande, venti and trenta Frappuccinos. Why grab a 20-ounce soda at 7-Eleven, when for a few cents more you can have a 64-ounce Big Gulp? Why not get the largest drink at McDonalds when they are all the same price?* No wonder we eat and drink too much. It’s ingrained in our culture.
Richer and more satisfying food
For decades, US dietary guidelines for Americans said fat was bad and low fat was good. Low fat cookies filled with added sugar were good for us. Nuts and olive oil on your salad were bad. Unfortunately, this led Americans to eat more refined grains and sugar, fueling higher rates of diabetes and obesity.
The French never gave up whole fat dairy or embraced low-fat cookies. Cheese, cream and rich sauces are a staple of their traditional cuisine. Eaten in small portions, whole fat foods fill you up quicker leaving you satisfied after a meal and less likely to snack. From my own experience, I know that eating a low-fat meal will lead to a bad case of the munchies an hour later.
It’s the little things that make a difference
In my own struggles with managing my weight, I’ve found that reducing portions, even a little bit, can make a big difference over time. During my three-month summer trip to France, I went overboard on desserts, ate more bread than I’d consumed in an entire year, and barely walked my usual 30 to 40 minutes a day. Yet I only gained half a pound. I have to attribute this to France’s culture of moderation and all those small portions.
In everything I've stated, I don’t mean to imply that all Americans overeat, or that all French people are slim. Neither statement is true. Plenty of Americans value organic food, non-GMO food, grass-fed beef and consuming local produce. Yet we pay a higher price for these choices and not everyone can afford them. Finding healthier food options in our neighborhood is not often easy or even available; while fast-food chains are ubiquitous, tempting us with their savory meals packed with more sodium, fat and calories than dietary guidelines recommend for an entire day.
If only American culture and the food industry would adopt a more moderate approach to the American diet. Perhaps inflation will be the incentive for reducing packaging sizes and phasing out oversized beverages. But I won’t hold my breath.
P.S. Moderation is not the sole reason the French stay slim. Stay tuned. I have more secrets to share in future posts.
* This is not the case at French McDonalds. The soft drinks are the one food item I've found to be more expensive in France and the bigger the drink, the more you pay.