Wednesday, July 11, 2012

French Women Don't Get Fat

French Women Don't Get Fat: the Secret of Eating for Pleasure
© 2005 Mireille Guiliano
263 pages

You may have heard of the French Paradox. In an age of innumerable health crises (obesity, diabetes, cancer) tied to diet, where every item in the grocery store contains something that at least one nutritionist has declared will kill us, it's not surprising that many of us approach the dinner plate with the dread caution of a lab rat that's been shocked every time it tried to nibble on a food pellet. But not the French. Name one of the diseases of civilization, and the French have escaped it. Why this should be so is inexplicable, for they indulge -- indeed, luxuriate in --  foods that have been put on the naughty list, from wine to butter to bread.  How is it they stay so slim?  Mireille Guiliano brings her own experiences to bear in trying to answer the question. A native of France, she once visited the United States as an exchange student and came back from her American summer looking very much like an American -- portly.  Her distraught father's first words at seeing his daughter were "You look like a sack of potatoes!".  The weight gain increased until she met with the family doctor, who she terms Dr. Miracle, who scolded her for forgetting the French approach to food.  No sooner did Mireille return to the traditional ways than did the kilograms start following off, and soon she was as svelte as a model. French Women Don't Get Fat offers the advice of her doctor to women everywhere, advice which emphasizes the joy of eating in moderation.

The French attitude toward food enchanted me as soon as I encountered it first in Bringing up Bébe, so the idea of an entire book devoted to it enthralled me. Alas, it wasn't quite as powerful as I'd hoped. The French take food and eating far more seriously than do Americans (and everyone else, conceivably), and see mealtime as a ritual to be enjoyed to the fullest, appeasing all the senses. No scarfing down a burger and fries in the car for the Gauls:  food is to be enjoyed at the table, with full pomp -- served in courses, and preferably with friends with whom one can linger for hours chatting.  Over the course of the book, Guiliano reveals a handful of sensible principles. To borrow from Michael Pollan, she advocates eating real food -- not too much, not too quickly, and from a local market if possible. She also tacks on miscellaneous advice, like practicing breathing, and incorporating more exercise into your life.  It's safe to say you've probably heard this advice before. Unfortunately, some of it is impossible to put into practice for Americans. We don't have local food markets. I would wager that the overwhelming majority of people here obtain 100% of their food from places indexed on the stock exchange.  We can incorporate some of this advice by patronizing farmers' markets and getting involved in Community-Supported Agriculture ventures, though.  The other principles can be put into action, and the strength of French Women Don't Get Fat is that it makes rethinking our approach to food look like such fun.  I wish it offered more than anecdotes, though.

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
French Kids eat Everything, Karen le Billon
Bringing up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman
In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré

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