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How Do the French Eat The Way They Do And Stay Healthy?
The French eat some of the richest foods but have the lowest obesity rates. How?

I was full after the hors d’oeuvres and main course. To eat more bread with a selection of cheeses would be pushing it. Yet, I was a guest in this lovely flat in the South of France and, so as not to be rude, I lumbered on. The homemade flan and lemon tart took me over the edge. And so, surrounded by the company of my French hosts whose melodic speech was like music to my English ears, I ever so elegantly, undid the button on my jeans.

This took place on a recent trip to France with my aunt, where we were guests in the homes of her friends and as a result, were treated to homemade French cooking at its finest. And let me tell you, there was no shortage of it. We lingered over three-hour meals, sipping champagne and red wine, indulging in four to five courses. Baguettes, cheese and chocolate croissants were the items that most contributed to my now expanded waistline. But if these quintessential French foods are so commonly consumed by its citizens, why aren’t more of their waistlines suffering? How do the French live this lifestyle of consumption, of carbs, dairy and wine, and maintain a relatively low obesity rate? Never mind obesity, how do they maintain a size 2?

In a world where obesity rates are increasing exponentially, France remains among the lowest in Europe. Statistics from 2009 indicate France’s obesity rate at 11%. Compare that to the United States (34%), Mexico (30%), New Zealand (27%), Australia (25%) and the United Kingdom (23%). Canada’s is 23%.

My amazement with the gastronomic culture in France extends beyond the food; the nature of mealtimes in general, and the way food consumption accounts for a generous part of the day is something North Americans should pick up on. According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the French spend the most time of any OECD country eating and drinking, nearly double the time spent by Americans and Canadians. Most importantly in France, food and mealtimes are about family and friends coming around the table to be together. I wondered, do these mealtime tendencies have anything to do with their overall leaner citizens?

Let’s get back to the food, though. Our first night was spent in Toulouse, the fourth largest city in the country. We sat down to appetizers of ham rolled up with herbed cream cheese, smoked salmon and two types of foie gras with bread. Wine was flowing. The main course was a rich, fragrant chicken and a chestnut dish, served with potatoes. The cheese selections included two types of blue cheese and two types of goat cheese (chèvre). The accompanying baguette was just as a baguette should be – crusty on the outside, soft and fresh on the inside. And finally, the homemade flan and lemon tart emerged. I insisted on only a sliver of both – but I don’t think the word ‘sliver’ is one they were familiar with. Another dinner guest, sitting across from me, was in her late 50s or early 60s and very petite. On her plate were two generous servings of the desserts, and she had consumed just as much as I during the meal.

There’s no way she’ll finish, I thought to myself. Coffee and tea were served, wine glasses topped up. As she leisurely sipped her coffee, all of the dessert on her plate slowly disappeared. I was astonished. The others around the table were the same. I leaned over and whispered the pressing question to my aunt: “How are these people not overweight?”

Her response? “They don’t eat like this every night.” Yes, the lemon tart and flan were crafted specifically for our arrival, and they probably don’t eat hors d’oeuvres before every meal. But, bread and cheese is an everyday delight, enjoyed after meals. There were other indications of indulgent eating too. As we went about our days, visiting cafes, I would see young people gathering with friends, eating pastries, large slices of cake, and of course, baguettes, baguettes and more baguettes. So while they may not linger for hours over four and ï¬ve course meals every night, these items make daily appearances.

A few nights later we were in Central France, in a small town called Ravel, outside of Clermont-Ferrand. We had traveled for most of the day, and insisted to our host that we needed only a light meal – a soup and salad perhaps.

And so, soup was served; a delightful puree of vegetables, consisting of parsnips and leeks, among other lip-smacking garden fresh selections. Next, fresh endive was brought to the table, along with homemade mustard vinaigrette. As expected, a baguette also made an appearance. Thinking that was the meal in its entirety, I decided to have another serving of soup. But then the homemade quiche appeared. There were two types – one was infused with fresh salmon, the other with ham and bacon. French quiche is heaven; the crust was so tender and flaky, the egg so fluffy, the add-ins oh-so tasty. And of course, after this “light” meal, we had cheese of all variations, and quite simply, cheese must be eaten with more baguette. Dessert, anyone? “Yes, please!” There was an abundance: chocolate cake, apple cake, brioche, and a floating island. What is a floating island, you ask? It is a bowl filled with thick English cream, topped with mounds of meringue and drizzled with caramel.

By the time the meal wrapped up, it was close to midnight. I went to bed that night (and every other night) with a considerable food baby. I suspect my fellow French diners didn’t feel this discomfort.

As I thought about it more, trying to piece together why we, in North America, are significantly heavier overall than the French, I thought back to every meal we ate during our trip. And I came to this realization: everything we ate was homemade or fresh. We didn’t ever have packaged desserts, or packaged snacks. When something was store-bought, it was from a local bakery, cheese shop or butcher. Salad dressings, soups and even our morning yogurt, were all homemade. On a number of occasions our meals began with fresh vegetable salads, the ingredients plucked from the gardens of those we were dining with.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Americans eat 31% more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries. The American diet consists heavily of ready-made and frozen meals, and packaged sweet and salty snacks. This infographic shows that while the French eat almost as many daily calories as Americans, they spend twice as much money on their food, putting the emphasis on freshness and quality, over cheap and processed.

In 2010, Readers Digest commissioned a global diet poll, interviewing approximately 16,000 people in 16 countries about their attitudes and behaviours regarding weight. The poll found that more than any other country surveyed, France points to America’s eating habits and fast food as the number one reason for their own expanding waistlines. While I don’t believe in pointing blame, it’s not an unreasonable excuse–in addition to the statistics on processed food, Americans are among the highest consumers of fast food in the world. They birthed McDonald’s, Kentucky Friend Chicken, Taco Bell, Burger King and Krispy Kreme, among countless others, and they are set up around the globe like a dominated Risk game board.

While the French certainly haven’t resisted McDonald’s, it’s success is not necessarily due to the hamburger. The menu consists of things like a steak au poivre sandwich, deluxe potatoes and macarons. Statistics show that the French still adore their native baguettes to the American hamburger bun – for every nine sandwiches that are eaten in France, only one burger is polished off (though McDonald’s has tapped into this, announcing that they will be launching the McBaguette early this year).

So maybe there is something to eating a baguette a day. While I don’t know if I will commit to this daily fixture, I do know that what the French emphasize at mealtimes – fresh, hearty and homemade fare, leisurely dining, and coming together – are worthwhile, and they ultimately make up a body of people that enjoy food in a way that satisfies the taste buds, as well as the soul – and, as an offshoot it seems, the waistline.

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