We've all heard the rumors about French women: They don't get fat, and they teach their children to eat a variety of foods from a young age. When I first stepped into the country of croissants, steak tartare, and delicious wine, I was desperate for some lessons around food. I was a lot like many of us—thinking that if I stayed away from certain "bad" foods, I would lose weight or that if I exercised relentlessly, I would create a fit body and look amazing. I was at a place where I didn't understand my body, my enjoyment of food, or balance. If I prescribed to all-or-nothing mentalities, I would somehow find happiness.
But I will tell you a secret about what I saw.
The French culture doesn’t promote any dieting or workout strategies. They enjoy the heck out of pretty much whatever they want, and they look and feel fabulous while doing it. Below are 4 tips I learned from the French, from the eyes of a young American woman struggling to find a healthy relationship with food and her body.
01. Taste everything; fill up on nothing.
French people do not, let me repeat, do not stuff themselves with food. Instead, food becomes the center of attention in a different way. They focus on each bite and dissect the intricacies of the finest cheeses, freshest baguettes, and renowned restaurants in the city. They debate the best ways to cook ratatouille and other traditional family recipes. Laughter, lively conversation, and delicious food are equally enjoyed around the table. They allow themselves to thoroughly enjoy each bite amidst the breaks in conversation and vivaciousness.
What they don’t do? Devour their food; eat in less than ten minutes; stand up while eating. Meal times are a sacred event where everyone eats and enjoys everything. The only socially acceptable pass? The cheese plate . . . and the wine.
02. Let go of snacking.
I was scolded many times for picking up an apple between meals. What I was taught in American culture as a healthy habit was deemed unhealthy by the French culture I was exploring. In France, people learn from a young age that food is best saved for mealtimes and possibly a goûter (a small snack in the afternoon mostly for children). The time between meals is to live life and allow your body the space to digest food. If you are constantly eating, your body is constantly expending energy on digesting food and never given a break. If we are constantly thinking about our next snack or meal, eating food becomes overwhelming and less enjoyable.
03. Balance your blood sugar.
In France, I learned that meat, fat, and rich foods are not "bad" foods. In fact, after I went back to school to study holistic nutrition, I understood a bit more about how the French culture approaches rich foods. Dessert is not an everyday occurrence for most families. But when it is enjoyed, it is savored in small amounts. There are fair amounts of animal protein and fat, which when raised well are nutrient dense and help keep you satisfied for longer periods of time. Good quality fats and protein from whole foods also help maintain normal blood sugar resulting in lessened desire and need for constant snacking. Farmers markets are plentiful and fridges are smaller than American fridges, so the French way of grocery shopping involves going several times a week for seasonal, fresh vegetables. When you put these ideas into action—less processed foods and sugar, more fresh veggies, good quality protein and fat—your blood sugar achieves a normal, balanced level. You are left feeling more energized, less "hangry," and you no longer feel the urge to eat at all times of the day.
04. Enjoy life outside of your plate.
The French call it joie de vivre (literally "joy of life"), an overall exuberance about life. There, I learned that food alone isn't what enhances your wellbeing—enjoyment is a particularly important factor. Yes, savor your favorite foods, but also take in and create beauty around you, build strong relationships, take time relax, and learn how best to enjoy your life on a variety of different levels. When you find joy in other areas of your life, you fill up beyond the plate. To live a healthy, happy, and fulfilled life, remember that these are just as important as the food you do (or don't) put in your body.