The Real Reason French Women Don't Get Fat

More French women are smoking than ever in an effort to stay thin, but are American women's weight-loss methods much healthier?

Women do stupid things to lose weight: We drink nasty concoctions made of cayenne pepper and lemons. We eat only hamburgers and bacon and cheese and peanut butter in an effort to force our bodies to eat themselves for fuel. We swallow pills that make us stain our pretty underwear if we eat anything other than a banana and an English muffin. We gorge and then stick our fingers down our throats.

So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that even though more and more French men are quitting smoking, their female counterparts won’t put down their cigs – even at the risk of dying – because the risk of gaining weight is too much for them to bear.

Between 1950 and today, the number of male French smokers has dropped from 66 percent to 33 percent. Meanwhile, female French smokers have jumped from 20 percent to 26.5 percent. Their top concern, according to Christelle Touré, a project manager at France’s national anti-tobacco committee? "Don’t fatten up." (This, despite the fact that researchers predict that tobacco-related cancers will become the main cause of death for French women within 15 years.)

I’ve never smoked and can say with 100 percent confidence I never will. But I have struggled with wanting to be thin, and have certainly gone to far more drastic measures than lighting up to attain that illustrious goal. So I suppose I can’t judge these fumeurs (though I’ll admit I tend to be terribly judgmental of smokers when I see them huddled en mass outside their office building in the dead of winter, or lighting up in a car with the windows closed and a kid in the backseat.) But their nasty habit got me thinking about the practices commonly employed by French women to maintain their collective trimness and how, despite the fact that most French Women Don’t Get Fat I tend to ignore most of their healthy customs.

When I recently vacationed in Paris with my husband, I witnessed first-hand the striking differences which exist between how American women and French women eat. There were baguettes and cheese, croissants and wine, red meat and butter. One night, I tried ordering my salad with the dressing “À Côté” (on the side), and you would think I’d just strangled my waiter’s French Bulldog judging by the snarling look of disgust he laserbeamed at me.

That’s because in France, women don’t order sauces and dressings on the side or with Pam instead of butter. They don’t eat rubbery fat-free cheese that expires during the London 2012 Olympics. They don’t diet. And yet…they’re far thinner than we are. Not only that, but they have lower rates of heart disease, too.

It’s called the French Paradox, and it flies in the face of everything we in the U.S. have historically been taught about dieting and weight loss. For instance:

They eat slowly and stop when they’re full.
Recent Cornell University research showed that normal weight people are more likely to tune into internal cues (like feeling full) as a signal to stop eating, whereas overweight individuals indicated they’re more influenced by external cues (like eating during The Bachelorette or ordering nachos because all of their friends are, too). Not surprisingly, researchers also found that French people mimic normal weigh people in terms of relying on internal cues of meal cessation. Guess who resembled the heavy ones? Oui – Les Stupides Americains. 

Paying attention while eating is not my forte. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been known to polish off half of a turkey meatloaf and a large plate of spinach and Brussels sprouts in 10 minutes. While watching TV. Without taking even a sip of water or pausing to put my fork down. The turkey was extra-lean and the veggies were chock-full of antioxidants, but still -– this is not a healthy way to eat

They enjoy small portions of real food.
There are no "All You Can Eat" buffets or "Would you like to make that a triple-double for one franc more?" in Paris. One study showed that the mean American serving size in a variety of restaurants, including fast food restaurants and ice cream parlors, was 25 percent larger than in France; In Chinese restaurants the meal was 72 percent larger in the US!  They don’t need 100-calorie snack packs because they’ve been brought up to consume smaller portions, not mow down an entire bag of Baked Tostitos Scoops and a Costco-sized trough of guac in three sittings, like some people I know.

And they stick with the real deal – filet, brie cheese, pastries. But, as we’ve learned, fat doesn’t matter nearly as much as calories when it comes to weight loss and maintenance. So while a small wedge of Camembert, two slices of baguette and a glass of good red wine might seem indulgent and fattening, it has far fewer calories than a gigantic Chiptole burrito filled with "grilled" chicken (dripping in grease), "healthy" beans (cooked in lard) and wrapped in a "low-fat" (but Frisbee-sized) wrap.

Some French habits I do partake in: I’m active (they walk everywhere; I workout regularly). We both try to avoid pre-packaged foods, fried junk and soda. I've even started wearing leggings and flats, just like every single other French woman I saw while on vaycay.

Do you follow any French eating customs such as sitting down and paying attention while you dine or having a glass of wine every night? Chime in below.

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