When I was in college I had a great opportunity to spend a semester abroad in France. At the time, I was studying French language, and a career in health care was nowhere on the radar. But looking back, the experience taught me some great lessons about health - lessons that I continue to practice today.
In this post I'll let you in on a couple secrets of the French. If practiced, they can yield some great health benefits for you too.
Things the French Do Well (FOOD!)
When I think about France, I think about beautiful art, architecture, fashion, and language. But what really comes to mind is the food. The rich meats and sauces, the bread, the cheese, the wine, the desserts, the... FOOD!
Interestingly, despite their rich food, the French are generally thinner than Americans. Also interesting is the "French Paradox" - the observation that the French have a relatively low incidence of coronary artery disease, despite having a diet relatively high in saturated fats.
Let me be clear - I am not recommending that you increase rich meats and sauces, bread, cheese, wine, and desserts in your diet. For the record, I advocate a diet comprised of mostly plant-based whole foods (lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains, and legumes), with limited refined carbs, animal products, and unhealthy fats (trans-fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol).
However, I do think the French are on to something when it comes to how they enjoy their delicious foods.
"A miniscule espresso, a petite piece of chocolate, a morsel of sharp cheese, a half-filled glass of wine; the French prefer tasting and sipping to gorging and guzzling. Small is good." -Harriet Welty Rochefort, Joie de Vivre
Learning the Hard Way
Now, I wish I could tell you that I followed the above advice while in France. Unfortunately I did not. I went a little crazy on some French food.
I enjoyed French cuisine in the American "supersize" fashion... And I ended up with a new size to show for it. I quickly gained 20 pounds in 4 months time.
To some, 20 extra pounds may not sound like that big of a deal. But when you're only 5'2" and have a smaller frame, the extra weight shows. More important than how I looked, I didn't like how I felt.
A Lifestyle Change
Ironically, my eating habits became more "French" when I returned to the United States. I knew I needed to calm down on the amount I was eating. I didn't set any strict limits on what I could or couldn't eat, although I did make an effort to choose healthier foods more often.
I mainly decreased my portion sizes, slowed down and took time to enjoy my food, and stopped eating when I started to feel full. I also walked a couple miles around campus most days, which helped.
I eventually lost the 20 pounds, plus some. More importantly, 18 years and two kids later, this approach has allowed me to maintain a healthy weight. I point this out because long-term results come from a change in lifestyle. Diets rarely work because they tend to be intense, short-term fixes that are not sustainable.
A Healthy Perspective
I would like to stress the part about enjoying food. The French are great at this. They take time to thoughtfully prepare, savor, and truly appreciate their meals. Even the simplest of meals have a fancier feel to them. The ritual of the meal, often presented simply yet elegantly, and enjoyed in the company of others, is as important as the meal itself.
In my opinion, food is not only a necessity but a great pleasure in life. It should be enjoyed!
When we spend our time obsessing over calories and feeling guilty all the time, we're needlessly depriving ourselves of this great joy. On the other hand, when we can learn to enjoy and appreciate delicious food in moderation, and turn simple meals into nice occasions for physical and emotional nourishment, particularly in the company of those we care about, there are great health benefits to be gained.
So... Bon appetit!