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Why French people don’t get fat

What are the differences between Kiwis and Les Français when it comes to eating?

France has around an 8% obesity rate. In America it's over 30% and in New Zealand it's 21%. I spent some time in France recently and it got me thinking about why there might be such a big difference. Here's what I noticed:

Food is a huge part of French culture and they love and celebrate it. But they're very discriminating about it. They'd rather eat a small piece of perfectly ripe cheese, than a huge wedge of something mediocre.

Women were carefully inspecting each piece of fruit or vegetable. Even if they were only buying a couple of tomatoes, they wanted them to be the best.

Meals may be four courses (with wine) but the servings are very sensible. It relates to that quality thing again. Meals are small but perfectly formed.

We've all heard the French drink lots of red wine, and that's why they have low rates of heart disease. And it's true, wine is commonly drunk with lunch and dinner every day.

But you know what the big difference was between the French people around us and us Kiwis? They actually drank a lot less than we did. A French person can make a glass of wine last for a whole meal, whereas we will commonly guzzle our way through a bottle or more.

In France, especially in smaller towns, all the shops and offices close at lunch time for a couple of hours. This is so everyone can go and sit down and have a good lunch, often in a café or restaurant. Not for them the sandwich eaten hunched over the desk in the office. Even the kids are regularly picked up from school to go home for lunch.

They don't seem to snack on the go like we do. It seemed rare to see a French person eating or drinking on the street.

Occasionally you'll see someone eating a sandwich au jambon, or a small piece of baguette.But they will not be eating a burger, pie or chips, and I never saw anyone drinking an enormous takeaway coffee or a soft drink.

I guess if they want a snack, they stop. So it's conscious, not mindless eating.

As much as the French are discerning, food-loving people, they're also vain. They are all about looking good. In Paris (in fact everywhere), the seats outside cafés all face outwards, towards the street, so you can check out the passers-by as you eat.

Style and appearance are really important.  So French people are pretty disciplined, I think, about how and what they eat.

They must have them, but I honestly can't remember seeing a gym anywhere we went in France. Or anyone out running. But I did see a lot of people on bikes (often in gorgeous clothes and heels!) and walking. I think many French people take their exercise getting to and from work and doing their chores during the day.

I'm cooking more simply, I think. I don't have a problem serving just one vegetable as a side dish now, as long as it's a really lovely, seasonal vegetable in perfect condition.

My portions, which I think were always pretty sensible, are a little smaller. And I'm trying to take time out in my day – especially at lunch time – to savour my meal and have a proper break; when it's a nice day I go outside and eat, and take 20 or 30 minutes away from the office.

I've cut down my wine portions, too; I'm trying to limit it to one (well, maybe two) with dinner these days. And I must say I do feel pretty French when I'm walking to work, heels and all.

Date modified: 3 April 2017
First published: Aug 2007


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