Disclaimer: The post you are about to read is not a scientific study, has no proof to support it and is basically the observations of an American girl in France for less than a week…take it with a grain of sel!
In my preparations for 10 weeks abroad in France, I started to read A LOT of travel memoirs. One such memoir discussed the phenomenon of the “French 15.” I’m sure many of you have heard of the Freshman 15, and this is basically the same thing. If you spend a year in France, you will gain 15 pounds. I am spending less than a quarter of a year in France, so I shouldn’t have to worry about 15 pounds. If that is so, then why do I feel like I’ve gained 10 pounds already?!
I am living with a French family and enjoying blissful homemade French cuisine every day. After having discussions with another American girl, Brittany, who is living with a different French family in the same area, we have come to many conclusions about the food. First, it is incredibly rich. I’m pretty sure butter, bread and cheese are the main ingredients of every dish. If you don’t leave the dinner table with the feeling of a 20-pound brick in your stomach, it was not a success. For instance, we had pizza for dinner tonight, but not what a typical Italian or American pizza would be like. Ours was on a pastry crust (yum butter!) and the only topping was tomatoes (shown below).
Next, in my host home at least, everything is prepared from scratch, using fresh ingredients. Needless to say, this makes for a far superior end product than processed foods would. Butter and cheese may be the main ingredients, but fresh vegetables are the secondary ingredients to every dish. I have not had a meal at home that did not include a fresh green salad. Usually topped off with tomatoes and cucumbers, lightly sprinkled with the only salad dressing concoction French folks know: oil, vinegar, and dijon. Asparagus and carrots are also staples of our household.
Meals in France are scheduled as family time. We tend to eat later in the day than I am typically used to, but everyone sits at the table at the same time, the TV is off, conversation is rampant (even though I understand none of it), and meals are not rushed. On the weekends, we have a formal sit-down lunch around 2:00-3:00 in the afternoon. If the weather is nice, meals are always taken out in the backyard. Dinner is served around 8:00-9:00 and the children are off to bed immediately thereafter.
Every meal consists of dessert. It is not always fancy, in fact we have not had baked goods at my host home yet. But there has been ice cream or yogurt. And fresh berries with whipped cream is a staple here as well. I am actually surprised that it took me 5 days before I visited my first Pâtisserie and savored a few French macarons (shown below with my new friend, Brittany).
I have found that my family does not serve meat very often, certainly not with every meal like in America. We had ham and cheese crêpes for one meal and chicken a few times but I have yet to taste any beef. Brittany told me a story about the quality of meat here. She is basically a vegetarian at home in California, but has opened up her palate for her time in France. She told me that the hamburger served for dinner at her house was the single best hamburger she has ever tasted. Again, I will attribute this to the freshness of ingredients and probably the fact that the French aren’t shy about foods high in fat.
With all the above information stated, it would be prudent to assume all French people are obese. Quite the contrary. Although, like every other developed country, they struggle with issues of obesity, they are rather low on the leaderboard. I could not find a scientific study that seemed accurate enough to include, but my googling the issue allowed me to hypothesize that France is somewhere between 20th and 25th in world obesity rates.
Although I feel like I’ve gained weight in only 5 days, I also have changed my eating habits significantly. I believe the habits of the French have more to do with their slender size than the food they consume. First, it is three meals a day: nothing more, nothing less. Anybody who has ever met me knows that I am a snacker. I typically eat 5-6 meals per day when you factor in all my snacks. With the rich, fulfilling meals that I’ve eaten in France so far, I have had zero want or need for snacking in between. I will attribute the satisfied, full feeling to the fact that meals are rich, include dessert and lack the ever-so-popular processed foods of America.
Second, water (always room temperature) is primarily the drink of choice for everyone in my household. I usually drink mostly water anyway, but it is nice to see the children drinking water instead of pop. We have fruit juice with breakfast (again, even the juice is far superior to anything available in the States) and milk is typically only used on cereal. My host parents have a fancy espresso machine that they use frequently, but I have yet to partake due to my aversion to caffeine.
Lastly, I think the French have mastered the idea of portion control. It is literally impossible for me to go out to an American restaurant and NOT bring home a doggie bag that sometimes includes enough food for two additional meals! In France, this is unheard of. Meals taken at restaurants are of adequate size, but definitely not too large. By controlling portions, they are able to indulge in richer, more fatty foods without the guilt. I once heard that the French have no concept of a guilty pleasure. That is simply because their culture supports the idea that if something makes you happy, go for it! Be that cigarettes, wine and cheese and chocolate daily or an affair with the neighbor. We have so much guilt in America over what we eat, and that in turn leads us to eating more.
Canard à l’orange (duck) from a restaurant in the Montmartre district on my first trip to Paris shows proper portion control. This is an example of a traditional French meal, served with a small side of potato and egg quiche. Très délicieux!