How Eating Like a French Woman Got Me Out of My Healthy Eating Rut

Skip fad diets, and think about what makes you happy.
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Skip fad diets, and think about what makes you happy.

It’s not unusual for me to find myself paralyzed in the bread aisle during my biweekly grocery shopping trips. After examining ingredients and nutritional facts, I’m trapped by indecision. There are ingredients I can’t pronounce. There are differences in grams of protein and carbohydrates. And the various price points ranging from 99 cents to more than $5 overwhelm me.

At this point in my adult life, I feel like I should be able to make simple decisions about my food without obsessing about every item in my cart. While I am fortunate to have many choices for my food needs, the options leave me anxious. I’m often left wondering whether I’m making healthy decisions at all.

But what if instead of focusing on facts about food, I viewed food as a gift to enjoy, explore, and savor? Could eating for pleasure be the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

These questions have spurred countless hours of reading and researching. I experiment with ingredients from grocery stores and farmers markets in my own kitchen. I even took classes in college.

While looking for answers to my questions, I’ve come to a conclusion that shapes my daily dietary decisions. Eating for pleasure is a sound way to maintain a healthy lifestyle where we enjoy food instead of fret over it. It provides me with a sustainable approach to eating. It keeps me from getting caught up in food trends. And it grounds me in life’s ever-changing seasons.

Eating for Pleasure Weeds Through Fad-Diet Jargon

In this age, terms such as gluten-free, paleo, and vegan are all over social media and cookbooks. It is vital that we develop an approach to food that helps us weed through fad-diet claims.

“Most fad diets go something like this: Take a few foods, give them ‘magic’ power, and set a plan to convince people that eating this way and only this way will promote weight loss,” says Alexandra Caspero, RD, a nutritionist based in Sacramento, California.

Fad diets often cast confusion over what is healthy. They reduce eating to a list of dos and don’ts, which is the exact opposite of eating for pleasure. When we eat for pleasure, we ground our food decisions in what we enjoy and what benefits our health, not what cookbook marketers or diet fanatics say we should be eating.

The modern approach to food can easily reduce it to nothing more than a means to an end. Our culture tells us that eating is merely a tool to fuel our lifestyles, attain a certain weight, or gain the necessary nutrients for health. When we view food first as a means to an end instead of an end in and of itself, we rob ourselves of the many ways food can enrich our lives. We focus on the results of eating versus the act of eating.

Food critic Michael Pollan explains it this way:

“How you eat is as important as what you eat. Americans are fixated on nutrients, good and bad, while the French and Italians focus on the whole eating experience. The lesson of the ‘French paradox’ is you can eat all kinds of supposedly toxic substances . . . as long as you follow your culture’s (i.e., mother’s) rules: Eat moderate portions, don’t go for seconds or snacks between meals, never eat alone. But perhaps most important, eat with pleasure because eating with anxiety leads to poor digestion and bingeing. There is no French paradox, really, only an American paradox: a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthily. So, relax. Eat Food. And savor it.”

My experiences and research affirm Pollan’s observations. But we must ultimately realize that there is no magic in eating a certain combination of foods, at a certain time of day, prepared a certain way. When we eat for pleasure, we assess what has true health benefits and what is hype. Only then can we truly embrace what satisfies our needs.

Pleasurable Eating is a Sustainable Lifestyle

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman explains that the root word for “diet” originates in the Latin diaeta, which can loosely be translated to “lifestyle.” In eating for pleasure, we build on our normal eating habits and way of living by carefully choosing foods that bring us joy.

That doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to eat whatever we want, whenever we want. I’m not talking about having champagne for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and chocolate cake for dinner. If eating foods high in fat, sodium, and sugar is how we define pleasurable dining, then we’re missing out.

Eating for pleasure encapsulates tapping into our senses. It is exploring and appreciating foods that give us the nutrients we need (such as whole grains, proteins, and produce) to live the lifestyle we want. We become more focused on training our taste buds to enjoy nutrient-rich foods.

“Taste buds do change over time, [and] our preferences change with time through conditioning,” writes Linda Bartoshuk, an American psychologist who specializes in the chemical senses of taste and smell. “When we talk about ‘taste’ in our everyday lives, we really refer to the sensations evoked when we eat. . . . Our perception of taste changes over time in complex ways.”

Bartoshuk notes that there are “certain substances that we need and that our brains recognize in our diets.” These include sodium, glucose, fat, and protein. When our brains detect foods that contain these substances, the brain increases the palatability of those foods. We then grow to like those foods more and more.

If we consume sodium, glucose, fat, and protein disproportionately, we will have poor health. But we can teach ourselves to find pleasure in nutrient-dense foods by capitalizing on these substances we need to live.

If craving something sweet, for example, we can enjoy dried figs drizzled with dark chocolate instead of eating a pan of brownies. When craving a salty treat, we can roast kale lightly coated in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt rather than reaching for a bag of potato chips. Instead of turning to a fried chicken sandwich, we can marinate and grill a chicken breast and enjoy it with homemade flatbread.

There’s more to it than just thinking about the choices you’re making. You also have to be mindful about the act of eating, itself. Do you remember the law of diminishing marginal returns from high school economics (in essence, at a certain point, more is less)? Well, it plays a role in our diets, too. After we take the first bite, every subsequent bite will bring us less and less pleasure until we are simply eating out of habit. The first bite of any dish generally offers us the most enjoyment.

“Our taste buds are chemical sensors that tire quickly,” explains Jean Kristeller, a clinical psychologist and cofounder of The Center for Mindful Eating. “The first few bites of a food taste better than the next few bites, and after a large amount, we may have very little taste experience left at all. . . . It’s about finding satisfaction in quality, not quantity.”

Most people face countless opportunities to indulge in foods that are delicious but do not contribute to their long-term health. Eating for pleasure accounts for these opportunities by empowering eaters to choose treats with intention. Then, compensate accordingly.

In French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano stresses the importance of a woman finding her equilibrium. Guiliano writes: “French women choose their own indulgences and compensations. They understand that little things count, both additions and subtractions, and that as an adult everyone is the keeper of her own equilibrium.”

When faced with indulgent food choices, eating for pleasure calls us to choose with wisdom and enjoy with heart. We know that there will be a time to compensate later. We may choose to have biscotti when enjoying coffee with a friend but will pass on eating bread with dinner that evening.

A Way of Eating, a Way of Life

This principle extends beyond daily decisions. Every woman has times throughout the year when she faces a bounty of opportunities to indulge. Maybe it’s the parties and cookie exchanges that come with Christmas or the barbecue potlucks and fruit cobblers that come with summer. Whatever the season, eating for pleasure calls us to feast and then fast to reset our tastes and regain a balanced approach to foods.

Guiliano explains that she finds the roots of this pattern of feasting and then fasting in the tradition of Lent. Practitioners abstain from rich foods and even skip meals in the weeks leading up to Easter.

“The Lenten fast would reset the body’s dials, making it more alert to tastes it can enjoy and, eventually, more appreciative of those that for a time it had to forgo,” she writes. “Come [Easter], everything enjoyed in celebration was consumed more mindfully.”

Eating for pleasure embraces the rhythms of life. It encourages us to enjoy foods while maintaining our desired health.

In eating for pleasure, we embrace a lifestyle that recognizes the important social and nutritional aspects of food. It also acknowledges the importance of each individual person’s tastes and needs. This practice is a way of living that safeguards us from fearing food. Instead, it calls us to celebrate and savor the gift of food. In my own life, I’ve found that eating for pleasure not only provides me with a holistic lifestyle approach to how I eat, but it also guides me through my daily food decisions, whether I’m deciding what to make for dinner or what bread to choose at the grocery store. Perhaps I’ll go with white today and whole wheat next week. A “way of eating” is for life. And I choose this one.