It's the question so many visitors to Paris ask with all the tempting displays of pastries seemingly on every corner. It took me a while to figure out the key to weight control when I first moved to France. Here I was, surrounded by all these amazing desserts, excellent bread, to-die-for croissants, not to mention the butter and cream-based sauces and the full-fat cheeses. I knew if I didn’t watch out, my weight would skyrocket.
I looked around at my adopted culture. Here was a population of normal weight, frequently quite-slender people, who obviously had these same opportunities to eat wonderful foods, yet they didn’t seem to fear an expanding waistline. Why was this? I decided that I’d shadow them, watching how they went about their day (and meals) to find out the secret to controlling weight all while living in this land of plenty-of-pastries. It was either eat like them or buy bigger clothes, and I knew the former was cheaper than the latter.
Respect for oneself, respect for food
These two concepts are linked in the French culture. The first is tied to a sense of vanity, and the importance that the French place on how society perceives us. “You have a duty to look your best,” a French friend told me early in my stay here. “Never go out the door without at least lipstick on!” Just looking at the locals confirms this: you don’t see many French people walking around in sweatpants. Maintaining an optimal weight is part of looking one’s best, and the French seem to be able to hover at their ideal weight even as they age.
Eating small amounts of quality foods at specific times is part of the respect they show towards their food. This mindset helps keep weight in check. You’ll see far fewer visual cues to eat in Paris than you do in the U.S.A. It’s hard not to be tempted to buy a little something to snack on when walking through an American mall, what with the sweet perfume of Cinnabon wafting through the space, and the amount of pretzel vendors, cookie shops and Starbuck outlets ever present. Compare that experience to shopping in a French mall where the food offerings are confined to a reserved area, where there are proper restaurants, not places to pick up a snack to idly munch on as you walk around. Which leads me to…
The French sit down to eat, and what they sit down to is balanced
Again, this is part of respecting what one eats. Mealtimes are anticipated and enjoyed. My children always had two hours off at lunchtime during their school day, when they would either come home to a hot meal or eat in the school dining room. American high school students often have but 20 minutes to grab something in their school cafeteria. And that “something” is not a three-course meal.
What is a typical French school lunch like? A starter might be grated carrots in a vinaigrette dressing. The main course will be protein and vegetables, frequently fish on Fridays (a holdover from when France was not as secular as it is today). A slice or two of baguette will accompany the meal. Dessert will not be a sugary sweet, but a slice of cheese or yogurt. The lunch will be served on a porcelain plate (my kids’ school had the cutest plates that featured a dancing pair of forks and knives) and, if the child is in preschool, a cloth napkin will be tied around his/her neck to kept clothes clean. (One of my sweetest memories in Paris was walking by a preschool and seeing all those bib/napkins drying on a rack.)
This early education in taking the time to appreciate a full meal is key in developing those good eating habits that continue on into adulthood. You see this in the workplace, where, while there are some people who eat at their desks, the majority of French employees set aside an hour (or more) to have a full meal at noon. It’s a moment of relaxation, not business-talk, where the food and the human exchange are equally important.
Movement is a normal part of the day
You don’t see a lot of gyms in Paris, nor do you see a lot of people jogging. Parisians don’t boast about their running times, nor do they moan if they miss a session with their personal trainer. What you do see here are people moving in a normal, consistent fashion. Métro riders walk long hallways and climb many stairs each and every day, sometimes several times a day. The city was built to be walked—it is relatively flat and compact—and lends itself to strolling. One could live in Paris all one’s life and never need a car. All this movement keeps weight in check and bodies healthy. Even if they have to use a cane to do it, seniors are out and about, doing their shopping at the open air market, going to the pharmacy, or taking care of their grand kids on Wednesdays when the children don’t go to school.
Food is not assigned a moral value
The French do not view certain foods as “good” or “bad” for you. They do not subscribe to food trends nor jump on the latest product endorsed by Dr. Oz. (There is no equivalent to him in the French culture.) Kale is not seen as anything other than a green and the gluten-free craze has zero traction here. Food is just food, to be served as an expression of love and community. “A little taste of everything is good for you” is part of the French mindset, and it seems to be working quite well for them. Now, if they could only see the value in cutting down on those cigarettes, this would be one of the healthiest societies in the world!
Shelby Ocana is Californian by birth and Parisian by choice. She arrived in the City of Light for a six-month stay when she was 20 and three decades later she is still there, working in the field of study abroad and raising two bilingual, bicultural children. Paris is her favorite subject to write about. Even after living there for so many years, Shelby continues to find one new thing in the cityscape each and every day that thrills her heart and amazes her eyes.
(Image Credits: Nathan Gibbs)