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Why the French Don't Get Fat

If you were intrigued by this title and are looking for the answer to this question, I'm sorry to disappoint. There is no magical French anti-fat gene. The French do, in fact, "get fat". I chose this title because it's a common stereotype we hear of the French, things like "they eat all that cheese and fatty food, and yet have lower levels of cardiovascular disease". People tend to attribute this to drinking wine, or the Mediterranean diet based on olive oil. 

Let's look at the facts. An OECD study published in 2014 showed that France has a rising rate of obesity, whereas countries like the US have levelled off. [1] But other statistics show clearly that the US is still far ahead of France in terms of the obesity rate. Depending on your source, the US has approximately twice the percentage of obese adults as in France (anywhere from 24-26 % for the US, and 12-18% for France)[2]. So yes, the French do get fat, but seemingly not as fat as Americans. Even with a rising obesity rate, this is a big difference between the two countries. And anyone who has visited France has surely seen that you do notice less obesity in the population.

There's not necessarily one explanation for this discrepancy. However, I do think there is insight to be found, not in what the French eat, but how they eat, that is, their relationship to food.  It's quite different from what we see in the US, on many accounts. Below are the major elements I think stand out about the French relationship to food.

Mealtime is a structured ritual : Mealtime in France is a structured, linear process, with a clear start and finish. To begin,  there's bon appétit that must be said to everyone at the table before you begin eating (for more on this, see This official, obligatory statement signals the start of the meal.
Then, there's the continued observance of the three-course meal. In France today, there's still very much the idea that a real 'meal' includes a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. Any simple restaurant or café will propose this sequence, but even my university cafeteria offers a three-course meal as their mainstay. Likewise, most families I've eaten with will consider it a minimum to propose for normal, weeknight dinner a salad or a starter, a main dish, and cheese and/or dessert. And there is always bread (more on this later). This is different from what we do in my American family, where food is served family style putting everything all together on the table at once.
The very fact of having multiple courses slows you down, it makes you more aware of what you're eating. It also introduces more of a structure to mealtime, you don't start the next course until the previous one is finished. Taking your time eating separate courses literally forces you slow down, to 'stop and smell the roses' so to speak.
In addition, as I've stated in another post, eating in France is not something you do anywhere, anytime, when you feel hungry. There are certain set times for meals, and a certain way you eat. As for set times, the best example is the 12-2 lunch break that most businesses still observe. Once you've lived in France a while, you become adept and identifying which stores and businesses are open during lunch hours, and which ones are closed. Taking time to eat makes you more aware, less hurried, and generally more appreciative of the whole process.  
Finally, one last mealtime ritual is setting the table. In all homes I've visited in France, everyday mealtime always included a properly set table, with a tablecloth and placemats. I know many American families do this too, but in France it seems to not be questioned. I've gotten so used to this habit, that even when I'm eating alone I'll still take the time to set the table for myself.
Quality over quantity: The US is notorious for enormous quantities of food, especially served in restaurants. In France, restaurants tend to serve smaller portions, and whatever you don't eat goes to waste (no doggie bags).
My French fiancé has remarked that he'll often hear Americans equating size with quality. In other words, someone will describe a hamburger, or ice cream sundae, or plate of fries as 'huge' and imply that it was great and delicious to because it was plentiful. I hadn't noticed this implied connection, but it's true. We do tend to enthusiastically describe any food that was served in large quantity as automatically good.
Our local market, held three times a week, is another example of the French desire for quality food
On the other hand, general food quality in the US, in my opinion, tends to be lower than what I find in France. Of course you can find good, high quality food, but this isn't always what's valued. I found this to be true when eating in a trendy, vegan restaurant in Chicago this summer. The food was good, but very obviously packaged or frozen and not prepared fresh.
The French, on the other hand, are very particular about quality, so much so that they have protected labels for all kinds of products, from cheeses to lentils to chicken. The French title for this is appellation d'origine contrôllée (AOC) which is government controlled. The AOC label actually goes all the way back to 1411, when it was invented to protect Roquefort cheese. Here's the description of AOC products:

"All AOC products will hold to a rigorous set of clearly defined standards. The organization stresses that AOC products will be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas."[3] 

There are a few products in the US that undergo similar regulations, but nothing like the amount you find in France. Having this kind of relationship to food, where quality is valued over quantity, makes you think more about what you eat, and choose it more carefully.  

Less preservatives and less packaged food : In addition to regional, authentic foods, the French are still much more accustomed to making food from scratch. You'll find less preservatives and packaged food in the supermarkets, and the packaged food won't last as long. One simple example is spaghetti sauce. The stuff I'd buy in the US could last me a month or two, once it was already opened and in the refrigerator. Here, the same type of sauce will last about a week before mold starts to form.
Similarly, any trip down the baking aisle of a supermarket will show you there are less packaged cakes and desserts. Of course you can find them, but it shows that it's still less in the French mentality to buy a cake mix, rather than just making one from scratch.  As a result, I find that food just tastes fresher in France, even products bought at the supermarket. You can imagine the impact that less preservatives and more homemade food would make on people's health. 

Food is serious business: As I mentioned in a previous post, the French gastonomic meal has actually been classified in Unesco's intangible heritage list (for more on this, see This alone shows that there is a real history and tradition around the gastronomic meal in France, so much so that it is a protected cultural artifact. But the reverence for food in France doesn't stop there. In addition to the AOC label discussed earlier in this post, there's also another title called the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a prize which is awarded annually to the best craftsmen in a given field, including the food service industry. The categories for food include cheesemaking, fish/seafood preparation, chocolate and candymaking, butchery, baking, ice cream/sorbet making, etc. The winners each year earn the title for life. French people take this classification very seriously. I have seen French people proudly choose a vendor for cheese or a dessert, based on the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France.
More generally, let's not forget the history and tradition around food in France. The official, French sit-down meal as we know it today is inherited from Louis XIV all the way back in the 17th century. Louis XIV implemented more sophisticated ritual and tradition in meals, and in how they were served. This emanated out to the bourgeoisie and this is the tradition that set the rules for French meals today.[4] Food is serious business here because it's been practiced, refined, and celebrated for over 400 years. You can understand why the French would take that seriously.

Bread: This last example is maybe the simplest, and also very telling. Going to the local bakery is not some quaint tradition of the past, but still very much a part of French everyday life.  Nights we forget to pick up bread from the bakery, we grumble and pull out a loaf of store bought bread that's on hand for eating as toast and in bread emergencies. Bread is a symbol of what the French consider the staple food. A few years ago when I was teaching a university course comparing France and the US, I asked students to come up with a list of 10 qualities or statements they think represent 90% of the French population. Of course, food items appeared on the list, but surprisingly the one food item all students mentioned was bread. Not wine, not cheese, but bread.
There's a reason why the baguette is usually seen in stereotypes of the French. This crispy, long roll is in fact an essential element in any meal. Granted it's not extremely nutritious, made basically of just flour, water, yeast and salt. But it usually doesn't have a lot of preservatives, it's simple, and made fresh daily, it only lasts about a day or two anyway.  Of course, there isn't just the simple baguette, but many varieties or other breads, made with different types of flour.
typical French baguettes, photo source:à-pain-910487/
The point here is that the staple in the French diet is a product that is still produced in an artisanal tradition, and bought on a regular, usually daily basis. You can imagine the difference that this would make in French people's diets, rather than eating store bought, sliced bread. The French, in fact, have a different word for packaged, sliced bread, calling it 'pain de mie'. They eat it too, but not daily, as a side dish to meals. This I can contrast with dinner rolls in my family, which I enjoy, but on which we tend to put butter, and are usually full of other things too. The French never put butter on baguettes, unless it's for breakfast.

Food is changing: When you take all of the elements mentioned here, the structure of mealtime, quality over quantity, less preservatives and packaged food, the tradition around mealtime,  and the simple meal staple of bread, the end result is something quite different from what we see and do in the US. Eating isn't just something you do to nourish your body, it's ritual, it's tradition, it's an art form, it's cultural identity. 
Because of these elements, I maintain that the French have a more balanced, less excessive relationship to food than in the US. But changing times are also threatening some long-standing traditions and mentalities. As the statistic quoted earlier shows, the French do have a rising rate of obesity. Since 1950, the French have been consuming more meat, fats, and sweet drinks. [5] Like in other countries, packaged, prepared foods are becoming more and more prominent. And as economic times are tough, people are choosing to spend less money on food. McDonalds is commonplace and here, and a recent Burger King opening in Lyon brought in loads of people, so many that they needed to have a line set up outside the door. Only time will tell how the French collectively react to these changes, if they are able to balance the influences of a changing, global world with their culturally steeped traditions and history. Some food for thought.



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