The Parisian woman has quite the stereotyped reputation– slender, fashionable, and confident. So how do you rectify the fact that she lives in a country whose cheese and bread industries are world-renowned, which is ranked #3 for number of McDonalds per capita, but also at #128 for obesity?Welcome to the French paradox, a coin termed in the 1980s to describe the culture that has low coronary heart disease despite a diet high in saturated fats. While you head home from your stay in Paris in a croissant coma and some tighter-than-usual fitting jeans, you may wonder how the French continue to indulge in their high fat and carbohydrate diets. Is it a record-setting metabolism? Does the amount of red wine they drink have a positive health effect?
The truth is, the French eat differently than you think they do – differently than you may even eat as a tourist in Paris. It can be reduced down to a few key reasons.
First, cooking is meant to be from scratch. Sure, there are some conveniences these days that make preparing a weeknight meal for a family of 5 a synch. But most of the time, people are eating as diverse a diet as possible and cooking from scratch, not using processed foods.
What makes this rule easiest to abide by is the emphasis on seasonal cooking. While French innovators helped back the anti-seasonalist gardening and airtight food preservation movements, today, farmers markets and programs like CSAs have flooded Paris with seasonal produce. They’ve encouraged Parisians to give up their plastic-wrapped, pre-cut veggies and revert back to exploratory cooking – that fun moment when you receive a celeri rave, celery root, in your basket and get to experiment with how to use it.
While the French paradox involves the food and ingredients themselves, it’s also about the act of eating. While some may love their “family style” buffets, the French style of meals is part of what keeps them healthier than the rest. By keeping the serving dishes off the table and rather presenting each person with an individual serving, the French eat only what is served to them and rarely partake in the American tradition of “seconds.”
Further than serving size, the time it takes to serve multiple courses allows for a longer meal, which not only makes it a perfect time to catch up with one another, but also curbs the appetite more obviously. The sacred 2-hour long dinner allows the body to understand when it’s actually full; that’s why after a few courses of fresh vegetables and hearty protein, a typical French dessert is a small piece of cheese or fruit.
And if a French person is not sitting at a dining table, it’s unlikely they think about eating at all. Walking while eating is cliché in Paris, and a French grandma may even tell you so if she catches you. And if it’s not mealtime, it’s simply not time to eat. Snacking is a somewhat foreign concept still to the French, and while this means they’re eating less, it also means they’re less likely to be eating processed goods full of sugar.
In Paris, having a meal like the French is a perfect way to assimilate to the culture you’re visiting. There is no time limit on your sun-kissed table on the café patio; unless it’s in the heat of the lunchtime rush, as long as you order something, the waiter will let you take up residence there until closing. Part of the joy of having a meal in a café or brasserie is just that: that you can take your time, take a break, and partake in the famous Parisian past time of people watching.
So you see, you don’t need to hold yourself to the new fad American diet to prepare yourself for a trip to France – or ever. If you learn anything about the way the French eat, it’s that it should be done sitting down, and it should be good food. The French paradox may be a myth, but following these rules, you may realize that regularly consuming cheese isn’t as much of a plague-ridden idea as some in your home country might suggest. The key is: eat the least amount of processed food you can, vary up the selection, and eat less. I.e. don’t eat an entire wheel of Camembert in one sitting (you can trust us on that one).