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Weight Loss and the French Paradox

Updated on June 19, 2013
Real food?
Real food?

The Standard American Diet Has Failed Us

As few as 60 years ago, obesity was not nearly as prevalent in the U.S. as it is today. Mothers cooked with cream, butter, eggs, and lard every night, the family ate together, and still, few people were morbidly obese.

Modern Americans seem to always be on a diet. When they're not counting calories, eating low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie, low-gluten or something else, they're bemoaning the fact that they can't eat a thing without it going “straight to my hips.” They eat something and then immediately tell the person next to them how “bad” they're being, how guilty they feel, and how wonderful it would be to just be able to resist the temptations of such delicious food. And yet, for some reason, America still boasts a huge population of overweight citizens.

Compare this to the culinary culture of France and other European countries (and similarly, to the American diet before the 1960s). Eating is an affair to be savored. Food is not a guilt-inducing pleasure; it is a time to bond, to talk, to discuss. The food is rich and made of ingredients such as cream, butter, meats with fat, vegetables, and carbs such as white breads made with yeast, water, flour, and salt. Meals are taken sitting down, not in a car or around an office table. Calorie count and the evils of food are rarely discussed.

So why are more European women slender than American women? Where has the American Standard Diet gone wrong?

There are several aspects that must be addressed in explaining the French Paradox, as it is called.

(Disclaimer before you read: I'm not a doctor. I'm a European transplant in the United States. I've lived here for over 30 years. When my family and I came to the US, like many immigrants, we gained weight. Then, we learned to eat euro-style in America and we lost the weight. I am not responsible for your health and diet attempts.

This is what has worked for us, and for many Europeans. It is NOT saying that everything American stinks and everything European is the Holy Grail of health. It is NOT saying that young people in France haven't started eating junk food and gaining weight.

It is suggesting that if you are having trouble with weight loss, perhaps you re-examine your food choices to include more foods that will fill you up nutritionally.

If you enjoy this article, I highly suggest reading The Fat Fallacy by William Clower. The whole book covers this topic in detail and along the same lines.)

Substitute All Substitutions: Eat Real Foods

First of all, the French still eat, for the most part, a real-food diet. Unlike Americans, if the European wants some cream flavor in his coffee, he will add cream to his coffee. His desire for cream will be satiated, he will no longer need more coffee and cream after having had his cup, and the cream will have added only about 20 calories to his daily food intake.

On the other hand, a modern American coffee drinker might desire a bit of cream in his coffee and reach for coffee creamer instead, reasoning that since it is non-dairy and non-fat, it must be more healthful. The ingredients in a popular brand of coffee creamer include: corn syrup solids, vegetable oil, sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate, mono- and diglycerides, sodium aluminosilicate, artificial flavor, annatto color. After ingesting this delightful chemical cocktail, the drinker will still probably crave cream but will rationalize that he did the right thing by selecting the “healthy” option.

This scenario is repeated everywhere in the U.S., and seemingly every food has some sort of “healthy” substitute. There are egg replacements, low-fat cheeses, soy-based lunch meats, gluten-free breads, non-dairy milks, chocolates that contain very little cocoa and very much sugar, sugar substitutes, protein breakfast replacements, and weight loss shakes. Most of these contain mostly unpronounceable ingredients and have vitamins added to them to make up for the lack of actual nutritional value.

Foreigners are often shocked by the ingredient lists of these “faux-foods,” and cannot understand why Americans would go so far out of their way to replace real, wholesome foods with manufactured ones meant to look and taste like the ones they are replacing. Some countries even go so far as to fight the presence of these foods on their store shelves.

The problem with faux foods is that many people eat them to try to stop a craving. A craving is the body's way of obtaining a necessary nutrient. When a person feeds the craving with a substitute, the craving may be quelled for a while, but it will return later with a lot more ferocity. The fact that most substitutes are loaded with sugar does not help matters, either. The person will feel more hungry, craving the food more intensely, and may binge which then leads to more weight gain. The hapless dieter may be 100 pounds overweight and still be cranky, hungry, and tired from improper nutrition.

Eating real foods, then, is imperative in leading a healthier life and understanding the French Paradox. One can start by avoiding all foods that don't seem to come from a natural, easily-identifiable source. Cream, butter, pork, green beans: all of these can easily be traced back to their source. Sodium aluminosilicate and artificial flavors might be harder to trace unless one has a chemistry or nutrition background. Avoid all substitutes and eat the most real and simple form of the food. Avoid too many sugars.

Quiet Your Inner Puritan: Rethink Your Relationship with Food

In order to think like the French, Americans must let go of the Protestant ideal brought to U.S. by the Puritans centuries ago: that everything good and pleasurable should induce guilt and is therefore bad. The French are not ashamed of their joy and love for food. They eat and discuss food with unabashed enthusiasm. They do not fear their food.

The large majority of modern Americans, in contrast, seemingly cannot enjoy food without declaring how “bad” it is for them, how “a moment on the lips, an eternity on the hips” will occur the second they ingest a piece of real cheese or a teaspoon of cream. Everything good is bad, and every dry and tasteless substitute is good and healthy and venerable.

To eat like a French person, one must think like a French person, and in this case, it means taking a more positive view on food: to appreciate the flavors, the textures, the smell; to enjoy the eating process; to avoid using self-deprecating language in response to eating and giving one's self proper nutrition.

Something to be said for lifestyle

As a generality (and this article is full of generalities), Europeans do not spend nearly as much time working out and going to the gym. Their lives, however, include a lot more "life movement" than ours. People in towns walk and bike everywhere, and adults will often walk to the local grocer every day. Games of tennis, field hockey, and other sports are social activities, but walking is still an important form of transportation. In many older buildings, elevators are not available, and it is not unheard of to walk 6 flights of stairs several times a day.

Make walking a part of your day. The recommended 10,000 steps is about 4 miles. Park farther away from the grocery stores. Walk to your errands if you can. My European mother used to walk to the grocery with all three of her under-6 children every day (in the U.S.). She'd take the grocery basket and the Radio Flyer wagon, and away we'd go.

No Longer a Paradox

When Americans let go of their need to substitute fake foods for real ones and of their self-defeating attitudes about nutrition, the French Paradox will no longer seem like such a paradox.

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    • MoRita profile image

      MoRita 4 years ago from IL

      Definitely. When my cousins came to visit here in the U.S., they were at first astounded at what seemed like massive amounts of delicious food. They ate and ate.

      After a week in the States, they began commenting on how huge everything was, and how everything just tasted like grease and salt and sugar. They began craving fresh vegetables and fruit to the point that they were going to the grocery store to buy produce.

      They gained about 5 lbs. each in the two weeks they were here!

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

      IMO there is one glaringly obvious reason for the French paradox: portion control.

      When I moved from Europe to Australia, I gained weight because the restaurant and cafe servings of most dishes (especially meat) are more generous in Australia. I notice the difference in the size of meals every time I go back on holidays!

      So you can imagine my surprise when I visited the US and found that restaurant meals were almost twice the size of the equivalent in Australia! My partner and I got in the habit of ordering one meal to share, while we watched Americans eating one meal per person and cleaning the plate.

      So people who eat out regularly start to expect that size of meal at home, too, and before you know it, they're seriously over-eating. And because it's all on one plate, it's eaten quickly so you don't have time to notice you're stuffed full.

      The traditional French way of eating is slower, because dinner is broken up into several small servings (hors d'oeuvre, soup, main, dessert, cheese). Put together, there's much less food than a typical American would put on one plate!