Health

Why French Women Don’t Get Fat

By Anna Hartman··  10 min read
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Oftentimes when we think of a quintessential French woman, we picture someone who is sophisticated, slim, and posed outside a café with a cappuccino and a half-eaten chocolate croissant perfectly positioned in front of her. She’s not torturing herself over every bite or actively tracking the calorie intake on her phone. So, what’s her secret?

It’s certainly not breaking news that we at Evie are fascinated by French women and are eager to learn from their seemingly effortless fashion sense, timeless beauty tips, and even their acts of showing love. So, when it comes to their mysteriously trim figures and simultaneous admiration for fresh pastries and wine, it’s time for us to get the inside scoop. 

My very first introduction to French culture was the book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano, and since reading it nearly eight years ago, I have remained steadfast in my pursuit of becoming a Francophile. However, as a new mom living in rural Virginia, you can imagine that my life and that of a Parisian woman frequenting chic cafés are quite different. Heck, I can hardly sit down at a Starbucks alone these days. 

That being said, even if I have no plans to pack my bags and move to the city of love anytime soon, that doesn’t mean I can’t take a few tips from my soul sisters when it comes to staying in good health. Although it is, in fact, not a false stereotype that French women regularly eat pastries for breakfast, or pop into the boulangerie on their way home to grab a fresh loaf of bread for dinner, it does beg the question: how do they remain thin? 

In stark contrast, there are many American women who firmly believe that gluten is the root of all evil and would sooner go on an extreme juice cleanse than enjoy a piece of buttered bread. Somehow though, we’re overwhelmingly the ones with the health crisis. 

Now, trust me when I say that I’ve been in those shoes. I feel like I could have practically designed a pair myself. I’m certainly not claiming to exclude myself from the American narrative. I tried more diets growing up than I care to admit, and the French way of eating (and even more than that: living) didn’t fully “click” for me until only a couple of years ago. I am, without a doubt, still human and fall into unhealthy and unproductive habits from time to time. 

Because they eat without guilt, the French are free to enjoy food and wine to maximum enjoyment.

That being said, once I was able to wrap my head around the real reasons why French women don’t get fat, I never wanted to go back. If you have the choice between counting calories, binge eating, and the constant feeling of guilt, and food freedom, joy, and health, wouldn’t you make the switch?

Well, I’m here to tell you that you actually do have that choice, and the journey to a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle can begin today. After digging into the research behind why French women don’t get fat, and the practical ways you can follow in their footsteps, I’m ready to break down five pieces of advice that have the power to transform your life.

French Women Don’t Have an Emotional Attachment to Food

For many American women, food is used as a form of praise or punishment. You often hear food being referred to as “good” or “bad,” and “cheating” or “cheat meal” is a common term used in the U.S. to describe something that’s indulgent. There are so many emotions wrapped up in eating that mealtimes themselves often lead to stress and shame. 

Do you remember the last time you were on a diet and it specifically stated that you couldn’t eat a certain food group (dairy, gluten, fat, carbs, etc.)? How much more did you want that thing? When we tell ourselves that something is “bad” or “off-limits,” it only increases our desire for it. Oftentimes, it winds up consuming our thoughts until, at last, we devour the entire box of cookies or pint of ice cream rather than having a small taste. Then, the guilt comes into play because, in our mind, we’ve let ourselves down. When regret and shame come into the equation, we tend to make even more unhealthy choices out of self-hatred, and it becomes a vicious cycle. 

In her book, Mireille Guiliano explains, “that the term ‘sinfully delicious’ is a ridiculous oxymoron in French cultures. Food is simply delicious. To enjoy good food is a deserved pleasure…Because they eat without guilt, the French are free to enjoy food and wine to maximum enjoyment. And enjoyment means feeling satisfied with less food. And, because they never feel deprived, the French do not slip into patterns of binging.”

Takeaway: It seems like it would be counterproductive, but removing the guilt and shame from food, and thus allowing yourself to eat without restriction or stress, is more likely to help you make healthier choices. 

They Understand Discipline But Reject Diet Culture

Rather than glorifying overweight and unhealthy bodies, French women hold themselves accountable when they get off track. While they don’t count calories or weigh themselves on the scale every morning, when a French woman’s goal is to lose weight, she will make small sacrifices to ensure that she feels her best (and that her pants fit nicely). 

It’s not a diet mentality because “French women never diet, they simply make compensations…If her pants start to feel tight, the French woman will simply cut back on pastries or chocolate for the week. She will never let herself feel deprived and chooses when to carefully indulge, even during this compensation time.” 

French women never diet, they simply make compensations.

Not surprisingly, my favorite parenting book that I read during my pregnancy was, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. I gained over 40lbs during pregnancy, and this book was the only resource I had that made me feel like I wasn’t totally crazy for wanting to lose the lingering weight during postpartum. 

The author notes that most French mothers prioritize losing their baby weight (and do so successfully) prior to returning to work from maternity leave. They do this because they recognize the importance of feeling confident and sexy, even as a new mom. 

In my opinion, one of the downfalls of the body positivity movement in the U.S. is that you’re expected to love and accept your body fully, no matter how it looks (or feels). If you want to improve your physique, it’s almost considered shameful and shallow. 

Takeaway: It’s perfectly okay to want to lose weight, tone your body, or improve your overall health – even if it’s solely for how you look. Rather than depriving yourself of delicious food and necessary calories, however, it’s much more enjoyable and effective to cut back on small indulgences to reach your goal over time. 

They Eat Everything in Moderation, Except Fake Foods

French women value traditional preparation methods, generational recipes, and a variety of real fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, organs, and yes, even dairy products. *An American woman shrieks in the background.*

When you’re not restricting what you can eat and you’re regularly incorporating healthy fats into each meal (egg yolks, olive oil, butter, cream, etc.), you’re much more likely to feel satisfied without overeating. 

Plus, French women prioritize “quality over quantity. They choose a single square of divine chocolate rather than a hunk of cheap milk chocolate. They choose to split dessert two or three ways rather than enjoy the unsatisfying ‘light’ option all to themselves.” 

Takeaway: Unless you have a food intolerance or allergy, opt for the “real,” full-fat version of a variety of foods, and you’re more likely to wind up eating less during mealtime while still feeling satisfied. 

They Choose Ingredients Based on the Season

French women make it a point to peruse their local markets numerous times per week or even once a day if necessary. Choosing fresh, unprocessed, and nutrient-dense ingredients for their meals is an important part of the overall act of eating. 

British nutritionist Jane Clarke described her time living in Paris, and how she copied the French women she observed: “When I lived in Paris, at the weekend I would walk to the fromagerie and buy two or three small pieces of cheese (my time in France instilled my passion for cheese). Then I’d stop at the market to buy some fragrant figs and crisp celery. The pleasure of my routine, the anticipation of savoring these delicious ingredients, and the ultimate enjoyment of this simple meal, fired up all my senses to satisfy my appetite. It was the perfect lunch.”

Rather than choosing general recipes, French women go to the market first to see what’s in season.

One of the messages that stood out to me in French Women Don’t Get Fat was Guiliano’s note about eating tomatoes in the dead of winter. Up until that moment, I never thought twice about grabbing “vine-ripened” tomatoes from our grocery store for a recipe in December. It didn’t occur to me that eating in accordance with the season would not only be easier for my body to digest, but it would actually taste much better. 

I remember the first time that I tried a tomato after reading that section in her book and acknowledged the awful mealiness of the texture. I vowed to exclude them, alongside many other fruits, until they came back in season. Now I can appreciate their bold, succulent flavor from the farmers' market during peak ripeness.

Rather than choosing general recipes for mealtimes, French women make it a practice to go to the market first to see what’s in season and in stock from their local vendors. From there, they use their haul alongside fresh herbs and spices to put together a thoughtful and delicious meal. 

Takeaway: Find a local farmers' market and make the act of choosing seasonal, whole foods a deliberate and enjoyable task. This will also allow you to appreciate each season as it comes and get creative while trying new recipes. 

They View Mealtime As a Relaxing Activity

Lastly, and arguably most important, French women view mealtime as a peaceful and well-deserved ritual. They don’t rush through cooking dinner, just like they wouldn’t be caught dead shoveling a sandwich down at their desk midday. Eating is an art form to the French, and it should be celebrated as such.

As one elderly French shopkeeper said, “We French live in the moment. You can’t eat in the moment and drive in the moment at the same time. But Americans drive while eating all the time.” The French take a mindful approach to both eating and cooking.

While leisurely preparing dinner, a French woman will pour herself a glass of wine, press play on a smooth Jazz playlist, and take pleasure in each step of the recipe. Seeing, smelling, and tasting the ingredients while chopping and sautéing is as crucial as sitting down to savor the dinner itself.

For the French, mealtime is usually enjoyed over several courses and involves wine alongside discussion and laughter with family or friends.

Takeaway: Let’s stop glorifying eating at our desk to get the *most* work done, or choosing the 15-minute dinner recipe in order to move on to the latest Netflix show. Rather than viewing mealtime as a chore, placing a higher importance on the act of preparing and celebrating food may actually help us all become a healthier and happier version of ourselves.   

Closing Thoughts

You may notice that I didn’t make any mention of French women torturing themselves in the gym seven days a week or taking some kind of “magic” diet pill that cancels out their daily croissant. It is truly all in the way that French women live their lives, from frequenting their local farmers' market to ending a leisurely meal with a decadent, chocolate dessert (without the guilt). 

French women don’t get fat because they’re honest about their intention to remain healthy and slim while not depriving themselves of the joy that comes from preparing and eating delicious, nutrient-dense food.

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  Nutrition  Wellness  Beauty Culture
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