Eating in France Part 2

Market_BerriesIs there really a French Paradox?

Nutrition and health researchers talk all the time about the so-called French Paradox: despite a diet seemingly high in saturated fat, French people have a low incidence of heart disease.  Also, they’re not as obese.  The obesity rate hovers around 10% of the adult population vs. over 35% for Americans.  Children are much less obese as well.  How is that possible if they eat a lot of saturated fat from cheese and butter?  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Foods high in saturated fat are famous aspects of French cuisine: croissants, pastries, buttered baguettes, pate and cheese.  But not everyone eats all of these everyday.  And when they do, portions are modest.  Tourists who eat in restaurants a lot may get a skewed impression of how French people eat day-to-day.  High fat gourmet 3 or 6 course meals might be the norm at fancy restaurants, but few people eat at those places every day.
  • There’s less eating in general.  People don’t walk around guzzling soft drinks.  There’s no constant snacking.  As I noted, coffee is served as a small cup of espresso or café au lait, not a giant cup of sugar-sweetened whipped cream.
  • Walking and biking are transportation norms.  I was especially pleased to see that bicycles are used for everyday transportation.  In just over 2 weeks, I saw maybe 4 guys in bike jerseys riding racing bikes.  Meanwhile, all day everyday, people of all ages were riding in street clothes, no helmets, on simple town bikes, and going somewhere for a purpose: to the market, to work, to school, etc.  Cycling was not an elitist leisure activity.
  • In cities like Paris, the layout of neighborhoods puts small food shops close to where people live.  Driving to them would be a ridiculous waste of time, even if you had a car.  So people walk for these daily activities, as they do in many other big cities.
  • There are theories about the health benefits of wine, and wine is a common beverage at meals.  Perhaps there’s something to that, but it’s most likely that wine is just one piece of the puzzle.
  • Consumption of added sugars, particularly from sweetened beverages, seemed low.  Grocery stores didn’t have entire aisles devoted to greasy, salty chips and snack foods.
  • I didn’t see a lot of foods that were made with vegetable oils.  Just sayin’.

Overall result: modest portions and more daily physical activity — a recipe for health.


transportation, not leisure-time activity

Other observations of Eating in France

Actually portions aren’t always that modest.  I ended one meal with chocolate mousse, thinking of course, it will be a tiny amount.  Instead I got a giant soup bowl filled to the brim with chocolate mousse.  It had to be at least 700 calories of creamy chocolate.  So when in doubt at a restaurant, look around at what the other people are eating if you need to get a handle on portion size.

The most bizarre thing I had: a sundae, or glacé, for an entrée (appetizer) course.  This was another case of portion size going off the rails, but it was delicious and extremely unusual.  The layers were made with frozen layers of puréed tomato, olive oil, olives and herbs and probably other things I can’t remember, topped with whipped cream.  Whipped cream and olives, go figure, but somehow it all worked and was amazing.

Bizarre Part 2: If you’ve seen the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, you remember the talented young chef who moved to Paris and spent his time in the kitchen making food foams and other inventive food-like items.  I thought that was over the top, but in fact foam is a “thing”, and I ate plenty of it.  At some point, if I got a dish without foam, I’d wonder what was wrong.  Joking!  Anyway, it’s an interesting phenomenon.  You can make foam out of pretty much anything, from cheese to fruit to herbs, and it’s used to garnish other foods.

One of the most fun meals was a simple picnic lunch, from foods bought at the local farmer’s market: bread, apricots, olives, cheese and sliced sausage.  Topped off with a crisp rosé wine.  NOTE: rosé is a big deal in France, and is nothing like the pink/syrupy rosé-type wines you get in the US.

One of the most memorable meals was at a restaurant where we let the waiter make some of the choices for us. Remember, waiters are typically professionals at high end restaurants, not some student working a temporary job.  At this particular restaurant, when someone was ready to leave, the waiter alerted the chef, who came out to personally say good by to each customer.

Most unusual use of a common food: carpaccio d’ananas, or pineapple.  Extremely thin-sliced pineapple — sliced right through the whole fruit — arranged on a plate, garnished with a sorbet of lemon and basil.  This makes a great, refreshing dessert.

Which brings to mind another point: time is not of the essence in France.  You might sit for awhile at a restaurant or café before you get a menu, and then sit for another while before you place your order.  It’s just a slower process, so go with the flow.

I didn’t take photos of the food, although I was certainly tempted.  It seemed rude, although apparently people have done just that, judging from photos on review websites.  These can give you an idea of some of the artistry involved in serving high end gourmet meals.  But plenty of simple food looked equally beautiful.

Want to get the benefits of the French Paradox?

  1. Eat 3 modest meals, that’s it.
  2. Avoid sugary beverages and junky snack foods.
  3. Stick to whole foods.  Minimize processed foods.
  4. If you enjoy artisanal cheese, butter and pastries, do so in moderation
  5. Be physically active every day throughout the day
  6. Wine?  Your choice, in moderation.
  7. Desserts should be fruit.
Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.