As far as “diet” books go, Mireille Guiliano’s “French Women Don’t Get Fat” is old news. Published in the US in 2005, it became a runaway bestseller not so much for its engaging writing style or common sense approach to eating but because of our continued fascination with the French Paradox. Why is it, we wonder, that the French can eat all that cream, cheese, pork and goose fat and remain so svelte?
According to Guiliano’s research, only 11% of the French population is obese, compared to 30 % of the American population. It is, of course, a generalization to say that French women don’t get fat. Obviously some of them do, but Mireille’s point is that on the whole, they are comparatively slimmer to women from many other industrialized countries. In her second book, French Women for All Seasons, she reports that many readers sent her “gotcha” type letters about seeing a fat woman on a visit to France. Obesity is on the rise around the world due to the globalization of fast food and junk food, even in France; however, what the author tries to emphasize is that the better quality food you eat in moderation, the slimmer and healthier you will be. She explains it’s not just the food that is important but the whole culture around it. Ultimately how you eat is just as important as what you eat, if not more. Habits such as eating on the run, in your car, or at your desk at work are not a part of the typical French lifestyle. A meal is meant to be a leisurely affair, eaten sitting down–preferably with family and friends. It’s this traditional way of eating that Mireille feels is threatened in France, and she rightly encourages us all to get back to the way people used to eat.
The first French person I ever met was Sophie*, a young woman from Paris. Living in Canada, I had met many people from Quebec, but I had never met anyone from France until a few years ago. I was teaching English classes at a government agency established to help Francophone speakers settle in British Columbia. The classes were open to residents as well as visitors from any country that spoke French as a first or second language. Sophie had bright blue eyes, an infectious smile, and a face like an angel. She was also–by anyone’s definition–severely overweight. Sophie was always the first one to come to the school for my evening class. Every day I would find her in the lunch room, studying her notes as she ate her dinner, which was always a supersize meal from McDonald’s, Burger King, or Subway. Since I had always imagined French women to be reed-thin, meeting Sophie was a bit startling. To my mind, she was proof of the damage that the typical American diet and lifestyle could do.
In her book, Guiliano writes about her experience of gaining a lot of weight as an exchange student living in America and how her family doctor put her on the road to weight loss by teaching her how to eat quality foods in moderation. Using his tips and tricks, she lost the weight and has kept it off for decades. There are no gimmicks, just some time-honoured advice based on how French women traditonally act and think in relation to food. It all comes down to taking time with your food and eating in moderation. If you buy the best quality food you can afford, you will be satisfied both physically and emotionally; you won’t feel the compulsion to stuff yourself with junk and empty calories.
The thing is, moderation itself is something that is difficult for humans. We have evolved with a feast-or-famine mechanism that has ensured our survival throughout the millenia but can make it difficult for us to control ourselves in the constant presence of an abundance of food. But I do believe that over time, we can learn to eat more mindfully. The way of eating described in this book is not akin to a diet, something you go on and off of. It’s a lifestyle change. A true lifestyle change–not a diet in the guise of a lifestyle change. Nothing is forbidden and occasional splurges are encouraged. It’s a system of checks and balances. If you indulge one day, you simply cut back the next. At its heart, this book is a manual that can help you learn to eat for pleasure.
I have been on countless diets over the years but none of them worked. I would start to gain the weight back before I even reached my goal weight. By following Mireille’s advice, I have been able to lose twenty-five pounds and keep it off for four years without feeling deprived. I don’t necessarily eat how much I want whenever I want, but I do eat what I want. And that to me is most important, because a life without cheese, chocolate and French bread is just not worth living!
*not her real name