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Let them eat cake

Posted on: June 15th, 2015 by thekensingtonstudio

They don’t diet and they don’t spend hours panting round the gym. So how can French women put away as much ice-cream, rich pastries and steak frites as they want and yet stay so slim? Mimi Spencer gets her teeth into the ‘French paradox’, which has baffled the world’s best scientific brains for a decade

By Mimi Spencer from The Guardian

Bofinger, in the rue de la Bastille, is the oldest brasserie in Paris, the haunt of presidents and ministers, Chiracs and chevaliers. It is also my favourite place to dine in the whole world. Bofinger is a shrine to food, staffed by mustachioed waiters in black waistcoats and white aprons, waltzing around the various rooms bearing platters of fruits de mer, wobbling crème caramels, great tureens of bouillabaisse. Bofinger is noisy and vivid, thick with the stew of soupe à l’oignon, foie gras, steak frites, choucroute, butter sauces, andouillette, sticky confit de canard, towering coupes des glaces topped with turrets of crème Chantilly.

It is also one of the best places in the world to lose weight. According to established lore and several new books (the latest is French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mirielle Guiliano), if you really want to kiss your ass goodbye, you should take a lesson from the French.

Despite a diet stuffed with cream, butter, cheese and meat, just 10 per cent of French adults are obese, compared with our 22 per cent, and America’s colossal 33 per cent. The French live longer too, and have lower death rates from coronary heart disease – in spite of those artery-clogging feasts of cholesterol and saturated fat. This curious observation, dubbed ‘the French paradox’, has baffled scientists for more than a decade. And it leaves us diet-obsessed Brits smarting.

In Chic and Slim: How Those French Women Eat all that Rich Food and Still Stay Slim, Anne Barone seeks to unravel the puzzle. As it turns out, it’s all about knickers. ‘Never underestimate the power of a black lace garter belt,’ she writes. ‘Even French women’s lingerie helps to keep them slim, [it’s] a constant reminder to make choices that pay off in slimness. Their belief in this principle is demonstrated by the fact that there are almost as many lingerie shops in Paris as bakeries.’ Vanity, it seems, is a very useful vice if you want to fight the flab.

‘Forget diets,’ continues Barone. ‘They are no fun and don’t work. What I learned from French women is that ultimately staying slim is not about counting calories or fat grams. It is not about exercise exhaustion. It is really about personal style.’ True, the French women I know tend not to get too hung up on ‘dieting’; I have never witnessed a Parisienne performing the calorie or carbo calculus that bedevils so many British meals. But they do enjoy a sensible, sensuous way of eating. Just watch them, dipping mussel shells into mariniere broth at any brasserie in Saint Germain. They savour their food. They are passionate about food. They have a national heritage devoted to and founded upon food. France is, after all, the home of the great chefs, from George Auguste Escoffier to Paul Bocuse – men whose creative juices still flow through the many kitchens and cooks of the land. For them, it seems, eating is life-enriching exploit, not a chore, and certainly not a guilt-trip. Ironically, the people most likely to be ‘on a diet’ (12.8 million of us in the UK) are the least likely to be slim.


A recent survey conducted by the French government’s Committee for Health Education (CFES) found that eating is still very closely linked to a national heritage of consuming good food for pleasure. In France, 76 per cent eat meals they have prepared at home; the favourite place to eat both lunch and dinner is in the home, with 75 per cent eating at the family table. In the UK, by contrast, we like to eat our meals (a) standing up, (b) in front of Coronation Street , (c) at a desk while catching up on emails or (d) by the side of the M40.

Whereas the French typically spend two hours over lunch, we bolt down our food in the time it would take them to butter a petit pain. Nutritionist Dr Francoise L’Hermite believes that the French secret is to sit down with friends or family for a meal, and to eat three times a day at regular intervals. She points out that the French don’t eat in front of the television, and they eat slowly, enjoying both the food and the company. How very civilised.

‘For France, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation,’ says L’Hermite. ‘From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, food is just fuel to give energy to your muscles. If you have no pleasure in it, you are breaking all the rules of eating.’

Dr Andrew Hill, senior lecturer in behavioural sciences at Leeds University, agrees. ‘I suspect that the French paradox has something to do with our differing core attitudes to food and eating. French food is real food – prepared in the kitchen, with time taken to choose, buy and prepare meals. In other words, there’s space for food in the daily routine.

Eating in France is a social activity. There are several but small courses, with plenty of time between courses for the physiological feedback to kick in. In England, we eat more pre-prepared foods and ready-meals; we eat fast food both in and outside the home. We have single, large meals, and family members will eat different foods at different times… Fast food is, by definition, eaten fast, so there’s no time for that physiological feedback.’

The unhurried approach to eating extends even to France’s Big Mac generation. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found ‘from observations in McDonald’s, that the French take longer to eat than Americans_ ironically, although the French eat less than Americans, they seem to eat for a longer period of time, and hence have more food experience.’

Food experience. Now there’s a phrase. Compare our ‘food experience’ to that of the French: the time that the average British family takes to prepare a meal has shrunk from two hours to 15 minutes in the past few years. And, while we are speed-eating, cramming in a Kingsize Mars before the lights turn green, the French are taking smaller mouthfuls, resting their cutlery between bites, discussing the food – often because it is worthy of discussion.

Few of us who have holidayed in Provence or weekended in Paris could dispute the fact that the French tend to aim for quality over quantity. Almost every village in the country boasts a bustling market featuring local sausages, patties of farm-made chevre, figs and fennel in the appropriate season or truffles dug from a wood down the lane. It’s not just a choice available to the moneyed middle classes, but somewhere for everyone, every day. There is a national pride in the nation’s produce and, until very recently, a typically Gallic antipathy towards imports (which is why the English still pack Heinz Baked Beans, Marmite and PG Tips when they head off on their annual gite holiday in the Dordogne).

Instead of an addiction to ‘invented foods’ full of hydrogenated oils, E numbers and preservatives, the French way, even today, focuses on the careful preparation of unprocessed foods. It’s why French women ration themselves to one rich, dark square of real chocolate rather than hogging-out on a preservative-laden, pre-frozen, half-chemical wodge of pseudo-foodo. Snobbery, alongside vanity, is an asset in the war against weight. (Consider, by contrast, the disheartening fact that the market for ready meals in the US grew by 39 per cent from 1999 to 2003; the $3 billion market for ‘food bars’ is expected to more than double by 2007.)

When they get those enviable produits du terroirs home, French people, it seems, naturally exercise strict portion control. In their study of why the French remain so much slimmer than Americans, the researchers from the University of Pennsylvania came to the remarkable conclusion that it was because the French ate less. ‘Based on observation in Paris and Philadelphia,’ they wrote, ‘we document that the French portion sizes are smaller in comparable restaurants, in the sizes of individual portions in supermarkets, individual portions specified in cookbooks, and in the prominence of “all-you-can-eat” restaurants in dining guides.’

The figures – both physically and statistically – back this up. Mean portion size in Philadelphia was about 25 per cent greater than in Paris. Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants served 72 per cent more than the Parisian ones. A supermarket soft drink in the US was 52 per cent larger, a hotdog 63 per cent larger, a carton of yoghurt 82 per cent larger.

‘A croissant in Paris is one ounce,’ notes Chris Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, ‘while in Pittsburgh it’s two.’ America is indeed the land of giant pastries. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer girth of a muffin I once bought at a coffee shop in New York – but, like all of the dead-eyed cows in the joint – I worked my way through it under the wayward assumption that it constituted a ‘portion’ and therefore ought to be finished. ‘If food is moderately palatable,’ says Paul Rozin, one of the psychologists on the Pennsylvania study, ‘people tend to consume what is put in front of them, and generally consume more when offered more food.’ Interestingly, hamsters do much the same thing.

As a consequence of all these mighty meals, the average calorie consumption in the United States weighs in at 3,642 a day, against 3,551 in France – a small difference, but one that can add up to a five-pound weight gain in six months.

Not only are our servings bigger, with more ‘deep fill’, ‘big eat’ and ‘mega deals’ both here and in the States, but between bucketfuls, our propensity for snacking is extraordinary. Run your eye along the snack aisle at your local supermarket and be amazed by the breadth of choice. Tandoori Doritos. Teriyaki Kettle Chips. Scotch-egg bars. Soon, you’ll be able to buy a ‘Christmas-pudding Flavoured KitKat’ (Lord knows how we coped without it). The UK snack industry is worth £9 billion a year, with speedy growth in such crazy sectors as ‘hand-held snacks’, ‘snacks on the go’ and ‘snack kits’ to service our new grazing, table-less culture.

The French, I suspect, wouldn’t let a ‘snack kit’ near their poodle, let alone near their mouth. Doctor François Baudier of the CFES reports that ‘the French, in contrast to Anglo-Saxons, hardly ever snack outside of meals’. One reason for this is that their fat-rich diet stimulates the production of cholecystokinin, a satiety signal which promotes an extended sense of satisfaction after eating even small amounts of high-fat foods. Brie-eaters stay fuller longer.

But for how much longer is debatable. Recent figures show that the French are gradually growing fatter as they absorb Anglo-Saxon eating habits. With luck, the French will fight hard to retain their national relationship with food, their affaire of the heart and the stomach. Perhaps the Academie Française should step up to the plate. In the last instance, though, it may well come down to attitude – that Chanel vanity, that snobbery, which might just save the day. As Anne Barone puts it: ‘The French woman sees herself as a beautiful woman despite her physical flaws. She is worth the effort of eating well, taking care of herself. She deserves to be slim and healthy.’ And she deserves that a whole lot more than she deserves a portion of pie.

Meanwhile, if anything, we British are beginning to crave something akin to the traditional French ‘food experience’. Look at the growth of ‘slow food’ movement; look at Nigella Lawson during the launch of her latest book, Feast : ‘I want to make people think about food and the part it plays in their lives,’ she said, ‘Food is a great record of the emotional state of our lives.’ Bringing food to the forefront of our daily routines, rather than tucking it in between all our other responsibilities, might just obviate the need for serial-dieting, binge-eating, panic-snacking and guilt-tripping. Oh, and it might just get us into a size 10 Chanel.

The Fench women’s guide to eating

Sandrine Janet, 23, researcher at Cobalt Recruitment. Lives in London.
French women never eat while they’re walking or standing, like you do here. We have no culture of snacking, and especially not on fast food. This habit is ingrained in us from a young age.

In France, every neighbourhood has its own market – the quality of food in Britain is shocking. I do not belong to a gym – I swim to keep fit (I do smoke about 10 cigarettes a day though). My friends walk or cycle to stay in shape. I have been a size eight for years. French girls also tend to drink a lot less. I have told French friends about my time at university here and they were horrified.

Cristina Lipscomb, 29, restaurant PR for Bacchus PR. Lives in London.
Because of my job I eat out at least once a day, sometimes twice, but I really don’t snack. I think the quality of food in British restaurants and supermarkets is improving slowly, but the quality of French food is better – my girlfriends in Paris can eat heavy, but very good food without putting on weight. Here, I attend a gym once a week and smoke maybe 10 cigarettes a night if I am out.

Hortense Bioy, 28, financial journalist for Mergermarket . Lives in London.

I usually eat four times a day. I never skip breakfast. For lunch I have lots of vegetables with fish or meat and then a snack at 4pm. I never eat anything fried. I might pick my friends’ chips from their plates but I would never order any myself. In France, we eat far more dairy products, yoghurt and cheese, but it’s tasty cheese so we don’t need to eat a lot of it. For a treat, I’ll have chocolate cake but made with dark chocolate so it’s not full of refined sugar. In France, we don’t drink fizzy drinks. We drink water with our meals. If we have coffee, we order an espresso, which has far fewer calories than a Starbucks cappucino. In Britain, people eat for the sake of eating. I’ve put on weight since I moved to here.

Chloe Doutre-Roussel, 38, chocolate buyer at Fortnum and Mason. Lives in London.
When I first arrived here I was very puzzled by tinned food – I still don’t understand spaghetti on toast, or why you use so much vinegar. And to me something like steak and kidney pie looks like it has been cooked using leftovers.I go to a local swimming pool here. All the women are plump, which you would never see in France. Here there is no discipline: no one listens when their body says ‘stop’.

Farida Khelfa, ex-model, now works for designers Azzedine Alaia and Jean Paul Gaultier, mother of two. Lives in Paris

I eat up to five slices of bread for breakfast. For lunch, I’ll eat salmon or sea bass with green vegetables. With that I have water (I rarely drink alcohol). At 4pm, I take tea – green tea and biscuits or dark chocolate. I eat healthy things in enormous quantities. I can eat a whole chicken for supper.

Mathilde Thomas, 32, founder of Caudalie beauty products, mother of two. Lives in Paris

I start the day with homemade yoghurt, fresh juice and fresh baguette. I drink herbal tea, and eat fish or meat for lunch. My image of a British woman is Jane Birkin, although I know that in places like Manchester you see girls who are tanned and skinny but rather vulgar. I have one cigarette after dinner – most French women smoke instead of eating.

Stephanie Giraud, 39, music producer, mother of two. Lives in Paris

If I want to lose weight I eat less cheese. I don’t like your cheese but I love French cheese. I only drink water and a little red wine. Of course French men, like all men, prefer women to be slim.

Marie Bouvier, (pictured on the cover, far right) 30, works in advertising. Lives in Paris

I never snack. When I eat, I eat: bread and butter, honey and jam, proper meals. I eat lots of fruit, and real fruit juice and I only use olive oil. I was amazed at the aisles of salty, sugary foods in UK shops.

Sylvie Kerchiched, 37, distributor for cosmetic company, mother of one. Lives in London

I start my day with an infusion. I eat yoghurt, a pain au chocolate or eggs and ham. For lunch I have fish and vegetables. For supper, I always prepare a meal. We eat at the table together – we would never dream of eating in front of the TV.

Julie Guerin, 33 works in the pharmaceutical industry. Lives in Paris

It’s no great secret why British people are often overweight. When I lived in London, the family I lodged with were addicted to frying potatoes, and the bread was of poor quality. In France, we will happily drive for 10 minutes to buy a good loaf of bread. Many British girls eat too much junk food and drink too much. I don’t think young British people know how to cook properly, so they cook quickly and eat quickly. French women don’t diet, the best way to lose weight is to have love problems!

Victoire de Castellane, late 30s, creator of Dior fine jewellery, mother of four. Lives in Paris

I love food, but I do diet. What woman doesn’t? I like old-fashioned foods and classical restaurants. I don’t go to ‘new’ restaurants. My grandfather used to take me to Paul Chêne and I still go now.

I like British food, but it’s awfully addictive. I think jelly is wonderful, it looks just like a gemstone. I was devastated when Marks and Spencer closed in Paris, I absolutely loved its mature cheddar and those little cakes with white sugar on top. But I do know that that kind of food is terribly dangerous for the figure.

Juliette Marrannes, 28, headhunter. Lives in London

In the office, I am called the carb girl. Like most French girls, I eat tons of pasta and bread. Carbohydrates don’t cause weight gain. The French just try to eat balanced meals, and in moderation. I would not go near pre-packaged sandwiches. Even if you can get a freshly prepared sandwich over here, the fillings are drowned in mayonnaise.

In my first six months in Britain, I gave lots of dinner parties. But then I stopped as I soon realised that no one appreciated the trouble they took. British people seem to love fried things. In Britain, I often see girls who are chubby and whose hair and skin is in bad condition. In central France, you might see this in agricultural communities among the men, but you wouldn’t see it in general. None of my French girlfriends look this bad. There seems to be less of a pride in oneself in the UK. This can be seen not only in your approach to diet, but also in alcohol consumption. In France, there’s no culture of going out to get drunk. I drink a lot, but never to the point where I would vomit or fall over. It is ugly and vulgar to end up in a drunken mess. The one thing that does contradict my healthy lifestyle is the fact that I smoke 20 cigarettes a day.

With thanks to Sarah Canet

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