We’ve heard it for years: The French don’t get fat.
It’s difficult — if not altogether impossible — to find a country that loves food more than France. Still, the average French citizen is about half as likely to be overweight as the average American, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Rates of obesity in France are even slimmer. Call it the French paradox.
So, what are the French doing right? Here are seven habits you can put into practice for healthy weight loss and maintenance:
“People in Paris eat more at-home cooked meals than do people in New York,” says Clémence von Mueffling, the French-born founder of Beauty and Well Being. “Growing up in France, we learned recipes from our mothers,” says the daughter and granddaughter of French Vogue beauty editors. “We never relied on restaurants or processed foods.”
However, a 2016 study in BMJ Open reveals that ultra-processed foods, including frozen meals and soda, make up 58% of the calories and 90% of the added sugar that the average American consumes per day. And people who frequently cook consume fewer calories per meal than those who eat out, per research from Johns Hopkins University.
French cuisine is about more than wine, cheese and baguettes. According to 2015 research published in Appetite, the French eat more fruits and vegetables than Americans do, and French family dinners place a greater emphasis on produce consumption, too.
Produce is so important to the French that the country’s version of MyPlate is a staircase with fruits and vegetables (“fruits and légumes,” in French) second only to water.
Meanwhile, national trends show that the French are further increasing their fruit and veggie intake, according to a recent report from the European organization LiveWell for LIFE. Try doing the same. In one 2015 Harvard University study, men and women who ate the most fiber-filled fruits and vegetables with lower glycemic loads maintained significantly healthier weights over the course of 24 years.
The French aren’t big on supersizing their meals, instead opting for lighter meals with smaller portions, says David Benchetrit, MD, director of the Clinique du Poids weight-loss clinic in Paris. In fact, when University of Pennsylvania researchers examined restaurant meals in both Philly and Paris, they found that U.S. meals were, on average, 25% larger than the Parisian versions. Yikes.
A 2015 review of 72 randomized controlled trials concluded that portion size dictates about 15% of our daily caloric intake, with greater portions sizes leading to excess food intake and weight gain. People tend to eat the same number of servings, no matter how big they are, Benchetrit says.
Eating smaller portion sizes doesn’t mean that you have to cut back on how much you enjoy your foods. Nine out of 10 French people say that they greatly enjoy eating, while only 39% of Americans do, according to the book “The French Twist: Twelve Secrets of Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Management” and the Pew Research Center. “Eating food and pleasure are two things that go together for the French,” von Mueffling says.
The French actually sit down to eat their meals. “Sitting down and sharing meals with others is something that Parisians really like to do,” she says. People leave work for lunch, drink their coffees in cafes and rarely — if ever — eat on the go. Good thing. Research in the Journal of Health Psychology shows that eating while walking inhibits the brain’s ability to gauge food intake, thereby leading to overeating later on.
The French aren’t overly concerned with “working out,” but they instead focus on “activity,” whether it’s in a gym or not. They perform physical activities they are passionate about and don’t get hung up on what the best new exercise is, von Mueffling says.
When it comes to your health, the best exercise is the one that you enjoy doing, according to self-determination theory, the leading theory of motivation. Research consistently shows that intrinsic motivation, or doing something simply for the joy of doing it, is more effective than extrinsic factors.
According to LiveWell for LIFE, the average French citizen drinks more than one glass of alcohol per week but fewer than two to three glasses per day. That may be the sweet spot when it comes to both weight loss and health. In one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, women who drank a light to moderate amount of alcohol per week gained less weight and had a lower risk of becoming overweight during a 12.9-year follow-up compared with people who didn’t drink alcohol. Meanwhile, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health maintains that moderate drinking seems to be beneficial for the heart and circulatory system and likely protective against Type 2 diabetes.
Although ethanol (alcohol) in itself appears to have some health benefit, much of the weight- and health-improving benefits of alcohol are linked to red wine, for which the French are famous. For instance, in a 2015 International Journal of Obesity animal study, resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, was found to increase metabolic rate and convert calorie-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. Just follow the French’s lead and don’t overdo it: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
7. Eat often.
The traditional French daily routine contains three main meals plus one afternoon snack, according to LiveWell for LIFE. The average American skips breakfast, eats a couple of huge meals per day and often goes for hours between eating. And while your total daily caloric intake is the main factor when it comes to weight loss, PLOS ONE research suggests that eating small, frequent meals is beneficial for muscle mass, which often takes a nosedive during weight loss and is critical to maintaining a healthy metabolic rate.
What’s more, eating small, regular meals as opposed to large, infrequent ones can help to prevent blood sugar spikes and dips that are linked with fat storage and excess caloric consumption.
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