Foodie Underground: Why the French Aren’t Fat

ColumnWhat exactly is the French Paradox? Turns out it’s just a different attitude towards food.

Mes amis, let us take a moment and go francophile. But first let me preface this by acknowledging that there was in fact a time when my love affair with France hit a dark spot.

A longtime francophile – “Anna, do you really have to always pronounce croissant with a French accent?” – I did what any person in love would do: I moved. But somewhere along the line, France stopped being the romantic place it once had been. My newfound relationship with the place, once seductive and alluring, turned commonplace, and in the midst of dealing with French bureaucracy, I was no longer intrigued by the je ne sais quoi.

But like any good relationship, distance did it some good, and now France and I are back to where we once were, with me constantly craving a taste of French culture. Which brings me back to food.

As a culture, we have long been intrigued by the idea that French women don’t get fat. But that concept stretches across an entire nation, giving us the French paradox. How does one consume cream, butter and ample amounts of cheese and still manage to be perfectly in shape? Our Anglo minds have a hard time grappling with this question, but really it all comes down to how we think about food, and in France it’s all about having a respect for what’s on the plate in front of you. A way of life instead of a lifestyle choice.

Ultimately the French Paradox isn’t a paradox at all, it’s just about a few simple values that we could easily start incorporating into our own lives, no matter where we live.

Food Is Culture

Although local love for the national cuisine may be failing, an appreciation for good food in France has never diminished, and the commitment to keeping the tie between eating and feeling good is alive and strong. Take Le Fooding for example. Deemed “A taste of the times,” it’s a restaurant guide/food festival/food news site, and one that’s committed more to putting the “feeling” back into food.

“We are about having food with fun, and with a smile,” Le Fooding’s founder Alexandre Cammas told the Los Angeles Times. And herein lies the French paradox: food is directly tied to emotional well being. French people don’t eat because they have to, they eat because it’s a valued part of their day and their culture.

Food Is Food

As Maurice Edmond Sailland (pen-name Curnonsky) once said, “Fine cooking is when the things you have cooked taste as they are.” A roasted chicken with a rich sauce may sound decadent to our American-trained stomachs, but as it turns out, real food is not only healthier, it’s also cheaper than the fast food, high caloric alternatives.

Real food isn’t processed, and it certainly doesn’t come vacuum packed and wrapped in styrofoam, and hitting up the market every day for a basket of vegetables instead of potato chips quickly leads to a healthier society.

Food Is Quality

When kids aren’t allowed to eat ketchup in the cafeteria anymore – unless it’s for the once a week burger – you know a country is doing something right. Meanwhile we’re sitting back and only barely touching the surface of the issue, with all kinds of ridiculous backlash, including the likes of Sarah Palin touting the benefits of sweets.

But the French know that when it comes to children, they have to set an example. “France must be an example to the world in the quality of its food, starting with its children,” said Bruno Le Maire, French Minister for Agriculture and Food.

Food is Tradition

Although you’ll certainly find a few cupcakes in France, food fads don’t hit like they do on our side of the Atlantic. Deep down, the French know what they are supposed to eat: whole grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein. Sure, the supermarket has over 100 kinds of yogurt, but 100 kinds of yogurt is much better than 100 kinds of sugary breakfast cereal.

Because food is tradition, there are certain classic staples that remain part of the culture. You’d be hard pressed to find a French person who doesn’t know a thing or two about cheese, and wherever you are in the country, if you just take time to ask, it won’t take long to learn what the regional specialty is and who in town makes it.

Food Isn’t Treated as Unlimited

Most of us, even broke 20-somethings, have the ability to buy way more food than we need. Compare this to places where almost entire household incomes go to sustaining a family, and you begin to see the disparity. Unfortunately because it’s hard to resist a good thing, even though we don’t need everything that we’re able to purchase, we still have a tendency to consume it and that means larger portions and more of them. French people eat until they are full, and then stop. Those French women consuming all that heavy cream and butter? They do it in moderation, knowing their personal limits.

Food is Joie de Vivre

Everyone has to eat, so why not enjoy the moment, preferably with friends? Eating with others has not only emotional benefits but also means you’re not sitting in front of the television alone, mindlessly moving your hand from chip bag to mouth. Food is meant to be enjoyed; given the time it took to get from the earth to your plate, it deserves to be enjoyed.

Want to be more French? Don’t just whip up a coq au vin or grab a croissant with your coffee for breakfast tomorrow. Eating French isn’t about the specific dishes, it’s about the entire process. Think about what you eat, where it comes from and enjoy the process of consuming it and who you’re eating it with. In fact, c’est simple.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: carolus124, pdbreen, Mike Towber

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.