French Women Don’t Get Fat—Or Do They?

french cherry tart

Fruit for dessert — yes please! Perhaps substituting fruit for sugar-laden cake and ice cream is the reason French women don’t get fat. | Cherry tart photo by La Tartine Gourmande

We’ve all heard that “French women don’t get fat”…but apparently Jenny Craig thinks they do.

Jenny recently launched its diet program in France, and this New York Times article sheds a lot of light on our cultural differences in the way we view food. Here is my favorite quote, that I’ve adopted as a kind of personal maxim this week:

“In France, dessert is fruit. Cake is for special occasions.”

It’s a simple statement, but I never really viewed things in that light. In my world, cake is inherently special…the presence of cake makes whatever day it is a special occasion. If there’s a cake and I’m not eating it, then I’m depriving myself of a simple joy.

But this small change of perspective challenges me to think differently: “Today is not a special occasion, so cake and cookies simply will not do.” It relieves me of the feeling that I’m denying myself, because the reason I’m not eating cake is matter-of-fact and has nothing to do with a diet.

Dine Together, Diet Together

Two other things I found helpful about the French view of food is that, traditionally, they don’t snack, and there is a huge emphasis on dining together. “Traditional French meals…are built on the foundation of communal dining — with each person, including small children, eating the same thing,” and this effects the way they eat.

“It is not looked upon highly, in France, to be on a diet…because, in principle, it’s not really necessary. The main course is passed around on a big plate, and you take what you want. So if a French woman takes from the meat dish at all, she takes just a little. It is rather easy to do her diet without mentioning it to anyone.”

In this structure, the dieter is taking true responsibility for her own diet. She isn’t making a special, individual “diet” meal for herself or announcing that she can’t eat this or that because she’s trying to slim down. She eats the same as everyone else, just smarter.

No Such Thing as Nutritious Snacks
As for snacking, I have gone back and forth over the years because there seems to be no universal agreement on when to eat each day. I’ve heard five or six small meals a day; I’ve heard three meals and two snacks; I’ve heard three meals and no snacks. But, according to the article, “In France, the phrase ‘nutritious snack’ is oxymoronic.”

“We eat three times a day, ideally no more.”

It makes sense to me, because if you’re eating balanced, healthy meals that fill you up with protein and fiber, then you should be good until your next meal. I know when I was working in an office, snacking was more a psychological activity than a need to refuel. I had a snack at 10:30 every day…therefore, I started to feel hungry just before that time. I would look forward to 10:30 like it was a little treat, a bright spot in the day. But could I really not have waited until lunch at noon?

I’m not saying I have quit snacking all together, but I’ve begun to look carefully at my meals to make sure they will tide me over without having to reach for more a few hours later.

French Inspiration
I can’t see myself ever using Jenny Craig. I prefer eating fresh…but now I also feel inspired to eat French! Not every day (à la Julie Powell of Julie & Julia) but now and then it would be fun to serve something new.

If you feel equally inspired, here are a few select recipes from Béa of La Tartine Gourmande — a blog bursting with French inspiration. (You can find even more of her recipes in her brand new cookbook, La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life, which is gorgeous.)

Ramp, carrot and chicken quiche

Ricotta Gnocchi

Apple Galette

Strawberry Verrines

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