ColumnThe problem with diets… even the French ones.
There is always a lot of talk about the mystery of French women. They’re beautiful in a classic way, they’re fashionable without being overstated and they hold themselves in a way that most of us Americans will never achieve. But most importantly: how do they manage to eat all that rich food and still stay so beautiful and thin?
We ask that question, seriously and jokingly, because most of the time, we come at it with our American, body-image focused, low-calorie, food marketing-brainwashed selves talking: god forbid someone eat real ingredients. Think of all those fattening sauces made with butter!
As American women we are fed a multitude of ideas about our bodies and how we should and shouldn’t eat, which in turn has created a mass culture of dieting, to the tune of a $40 million a year diet industry. Diet bars, diet drinks, diet everything. In fact, 23 percent of American women reported being on a diet at some point in 2012, and although that number is down from 35 percent in 1992, that’s still almost one out of four women.
The word “diet” insinuates that you are doing something that you wouldn’t otherwise do. Trust me, no one who eats only grapefruits and lemon water lives a long and healthy life. Dieting is therefore very different than a lifestyle change. You cut out certain things for a limited period of time in the hopes that you’ll shed some weight and feel better. That’s neither smart nor is it healthy, and if you take a look at the number of diets out there, one thing is clear: we are on the search for a quick fix.
This all came to mind as I read an article pronouncing the benefits of “The Parisian Diet.” (Spoiler alert: the only thing you need to be skinny is, start savoring your food.) No, it’s not just a few women committing to a more European lifestyle, there is actually a book written by a French nutritionist called The Parisian Diet, and according to its website it’s “France’s #1 weight loss diet.”
We’re enthralled with the idea that French women can live in a land of cheese and wine and still be skinny – notice how we’re constantly hung up on the physical traits alone. Do we really need a diet plan to tell us how to live well? If we have come that far then I fear for not only our physical health, but our emotional health as well.
This isn’t the first time the idea of a French diet has popped up. There was the ever popular French Women Don’t Get Fat, which I must say was in fact a good read. But ultimately that was less of a diet plan and more of a reminder that knowing how to live the good life should be a sought after skill.
I was discussing French eating habits with an American friend that lives in London, sharing a flat with two French women.
“The difference is that they will eat a piece of bread slathered with Nutella on it for breakfast and not think twice about it. If an American woman does the same thing, she will make an excuse for it,” said my friend.
Her point was that it’s not that French women can just eat whatever they want – they know all about healthy portions, sugar, fats and beyond – it’s that when they do eat something that’s a little richer than usual, they won’t launch into a long discussion about it.
She’s right. In American culture, as women, we are taught that indulgence is bad. That if we are eating a rich dessert it better be because we deserved it. Because it’s your birthday. Because you ran 10 miles this morning. Because next week you’re off desserts and this is your last hurrah. We don’t indulge for indulgence’s sake. That would be so gauche.
This is why we are a country plagued with obesity and eating disorders; because food isn’t something that’s a part of our daily lifestyle, it’s just a concoction of nutrients and calories. I once heard it put this way: the difference between meals in the U.S. and France is that in the U.S. the meal is constructed of starches, proteins, vegetables, fats and sugars. In France a meal is constructed of courses: appetizer, entree, cheese and dessert.
While in the U.S. we’re busy thinking about the food pyramid (or plate), the French person is debating on whether they should pick between chocolate cake or just a piece of fruit to finish their meal with. It’s about the process and the holy moment of eating, not a nitpicking on whether or not the meal was low enough in calories that they can justify even considering finishing it all off with something sweet.
If we want a healthy relationship with food, we need to rethink our entire way of looking at food. It’s not just about the physical, it’s about the mental as well. All the side benefits that come from eating well. Happiness for example. General well-being. The time to be with friends. Celebrating the everyday. Things that we have lost track of in the search for the ultimate diet that keeps our waistlines trim.
Because what we have to remember is that eating well isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle.
This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.