Health Lessons from International Cuisines: France

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International cuisines have long added variety to the American palate. Although modern, processed foods are gaining popularity in developed and developing countries, most regions still retain unique food cultures and dietary patterns that set them apart from the rest of the world.

In this series of internationally-themed articles, I’ll pick different countries or regions and share some of the most interesting and beneficial aspects of their food culture, and how they can enrich our own. First up: France!

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The French Paradox

A typical day in France starts out with tea or coffee and a light breakfast of bread or croissant, butter, and jam. Lunch is usually the biggest meal of the day, containing about four courses – a ‘starter’ (typically raw vegetables, cold cuts, or pâté), a main dish (usually red meat or poultry, plus a starch and vegetable), a cheese course, and a dessert (often fruit). Dinner is usually similar to lunch, but smaller.

For years, this basic dietary pattern has been the source of much consternation in the scientific community. The French get approximately 39% of their energy from fat, including 16% from saturated fat. (1) About 30% of that saturated fat comes from butter. Their fiber intake is relatively low, and they consume fewer cereals, fruits, nuts, beans, and rice than most other European countries.

Scientists and laypeople alike simply cannot reconcile the high-fat, ‘indulgent’ diet of the French with their notoriously low rates of cardiovascular disease, and have therefore dubbed it the “French Paradox.” (2, 3) Researchers have repeatedly attempted to prove that red wine is the reason behind France’s better-than-expected health, but there are a few other factors that likely play a more important role.

An appreciation for ‘rich’ food

Many of the foods known to Americans as ‘rich’ and ‘fatty’ are known in Paleo circles as ‘nutrient-dense,’ and in French circles as ‘delicious’. In France, cheese is served with nearly every meal, butter is used generously, red meat is consumed often, and organ meats make frequent appearances in pâtés, sausages, or as entrées. In fact, these ‘odd bits’ are so widely consumed that tourists have to pay close attention if they want to avoid them! France even has a private club devoted to the appreciation of organ meats.

If you’ve read the above links to my previous articles, you know that saturated fats, cholesterol, and other nutrients found in traditional animal products promote health rather than degrade it. Unfortunately, the conventional scientific community refuses to consider the possibility that France has better health because of their diet, rather than in spite of it.

Prioritizing food quality

Although supermarkets are sadly becoming more and more popular in France, many people still do their shopping at specialty stores or farmers’ markets where they can be confident of food freshness and quality. It’s not uncommon in France for a shopper to visit four or five different stores just for food, which can include a bakery, charcuterie, butcher, produce stand, creamery, and fishmonger. (4)

Here’s a telling statistic about French priorities: a survey found that about 75% of French people would prefer – at the same price – a week at a modest hotel with gourmet food, over a week at a luxury hotel with average food. In stark contrast, only 10% of Americans would prioritize the gourmet food. (5)

In France, even schools make food a priority. Check out a couple of these school lunch menus (6):

From a preschool (yes, a preschool) in Versailles:

  • Starter: sliced radish and corn salad with vinaigrette dressing, and black olive garnish
  • Main: Roast guinea fowl (commonly eaten in France instead of chicken); sautéed Provençal vegetables and wheat berries
  • Cheese: saint Paulin (a semisoft, buttery cheese originally made by trappist monks)
  • Dessert: Vanilla flan and “Cat’s tongue” cookies

And here’s a typical menu for a school in France’s poorest town:

  • Starter: Grated carrots or asparagus salad
  • Main: Beef tongue or ground beef, pasta, and green vegetables
  • Dairy: Cheese or yogurt
  • Dessert: Fruit salad with honey syrup

A positive relationship with food

The French have one of the healthiest attitudes towards food of any developed country. Mealtimes are of the utmost importance, and eating is seen as a social time to enjoy family and friends.

A study comparing the attitudes toward food of four different nations found that Americans equate food the most with health and the least with pleasure, while the French equate food the most with pleasure and the least with health. (7) Compared to Americans, a higher percentage of the French associated the words ‘heavy cream’ with ‘whipped’ as opposed to ‘unhealthy,’ and while only a third of Americans consider themselves healthy eaters, about three quarters of French people view their diets as ‘healthy.’ (8)

As much as it pays to be aware of food’s potential health benefits or risks, sometimes it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude, than the right food with the wrong attitude. (Remember the story of the ‘beer and pizza’ diet?) The French do a pretty good job in both respects.

What can the French teach us?

I think the biggest thing we can learn from French food culture is to cultivate a healthy attitude towards food. Most of you reading this blog already know the benefits of eating nutrient-dense animal foods and prioritizing food quality. But people following an ancestral eating pattern are just as susceptible to unhealthy food behaviors as those eating a Standard American Diet.

So take some advice from the French: if you decide to eat a slice of homemade chocolate cake at your grandma’s birthday dinner, don’t wallow in guilt – just enjoy it! And as tempting as it can be to grab a Paleokit and run out the door, there’s something to be said for sitting down to a meal on a regular basis and making it a time to connect with friends and family. Food is one of the oldest and most primal sources of human pleasure, and reviving and cultivating that pleasure is something we could all benefit from.

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Comments Join the Conversation

  1. joy says

    Hi Chris – great post from a franco-phile who lived the ex pat life in France for ten years, and was married to a French National. I’d like to add, that the French also do not snack between meals, take a long time to eat/savor the food and conversation, and have smaller portions than our US supersize. In a word, they truly ENJOY life – A votre sante — to your health – is a favorite toast!

  2. says

    Great article Chris. I am quite the francophile myself so I applaud your topic! Besides the reasons you mentioned, another explanation for the French Paradox could be their addition of bitter foods in their diet. Bitter herbs and vegetables stimulate digestion. Some go so far as to say that many common digestive complaints of our US culture resides in a “bitters deficiency”. Not only are French salads typically full of different bitter greens, they also have a custom of the aperatif, or bitter liqueurs before meals.
    My husband is French and he remembers going to the fields in the spring with him mom to collect dandelion leaves. He is from the alps, so I can imagine those cooling and draining and hepatic herbs are especially important after a long winter of heavy foods.
    We are spending a month in France next spring to visit family and I’ll be teaching a course in Provence (about herbs) for a week. I am already looking forward to their incredible cuisine!

    • Alice says

      In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the taste bitter corresponds to the organ heart. Beside eating healthy fats, I guess the bitter greens and herbs help too.

  3. Catherine says

    Great article about the art of enjoying a meal in France. I perpetuate this art here in the US also. I prepare a real lunch and we spend a good hour enjoying ourselves. I’ll comment again later it’s lunchtime here in the north east. lol

  4. Cherylyn says

    Great article, Chris — I look forward to the next country! Another reason for the good health of the French could be that the dairy in France, I believe, is grass-fed and probably minimally pasteurized, and therefore beneficial to their health, unlike mainstream dairy in the U.S. I would think that their food animals are raised similarly. And what about all the smoking in France? Do they have lower rates of cancer, as well?

  5. says

    Great post. I have to admit I am annoyed when my friends serve me somthing that tastes really good but tell me that it is healthy. One interesting thing about the sociability of meals is that we seem to have undergone some kind of reversal with the French. According to Flexner, Washington’s biographer, during the revolution, Lafayette and other French officiers remarked on how long the Americans spent at meals, sitting around and having many courses. Maybe sort of mini-paleo.

  6. Scott says

    One nutritional researcher Roger Corder has looked into the French paradox and added some insight based on his findings. He tried to focus on those components for the French diet which show the most significant correlations with better health and then further correlated the area within the country where the highest health benefits are observable.

    He quickly zeroed in on red wine as a significant component of the diet (among others) and then the south western region of the country. (The better health of the French is by no means evenly distributed throughout the nation.)

    Corder is convinced that a certain class of polyphenols called procyanidins are one of the keys to the health of the people of this region. These are found in remarkable abundance in the red wines of particularly Madiran (and other regions as well) which are left to macerate on the skins – which contain most of these substances – for up to two weeks during the fermentation process.

    He has written a book on the subject which should convince even the most skeptical reader of the health benefits attributable to the moderate and regular consumption of red wine.

    This is just one aspect of a most fascinating subject.

  7. Barralis says

    Sadly, this is also going slowly away, generation after generation, and obesity is shouting up here in France too. People here become too health conscious, still enjoy the cake and the duck, but feel guilty about it and blame the fat of the cake of the fat of the duck Arrrrgh . We may will have to learn from Americans to be healthy. I already am.:-

  8. Paulette says

    Just curious if you’ve read David Servan-Schreiber’s book Anti Cancer? He’s a French Dr. who got cancer. A very close friend of mine who grew up in St. German got a horrid rectal cancer. I’m only pointing this out because they are both, truly French. Dr. Kresser, I am new to your website and found it because I recently took a blood test which showed I have those little LDL particles you have described (Apo 83/ LDL-P 1433). For years I was an Atkins fan, primarily because as a child I only ate meat, but years later, after working in a French restaurant and living and loving everything French, I learned to eat vegetables (because that’s all the chef would give me at the end of a shift). As a now 43 year old (pastry chef who is trained in the classic French way), I have tried every diet paradigm there is. I primarily do a paleo diet, but the past 2 years, I’ve slipped more into the Raw, vegan way. I do eat whole grains and legumes, but I limit them. I live in a small, Southern town where people are highly obese and dying of cancer and heart disease left and right. They love that you can eat the heck out of meat, but honestly, most of them rarely eat green vegetables and they always eat the meat “off the shelf.” What is your advise to me, a wino, whose town shuns booze but loves meat? I am 10# overweight (not much, and I look fairly good:)), exercise, and stay stressed?

    • PHK says

      @Paulette,

      i’m in the middle of David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer.

      it’s a mixed bag for me. it does have some useful information.

      he quotes Loren Cordain, Ornish, & Dr. Campbl, China Study, M. Pollan.

      things to avoid (for him) : sugar, white flour, red meat, processed food, O6 oil, hydrogenated oil

      good food stuff (for him) : vegetables (including seaweed),m whole grains, legumes, canola oil, olive oil, flax seed oil, pasture butter, O3m green tea, red wine, exercise, mushroom, D3, herbs, nuts.
      + exercise, power of mind.

      the book is also information-fluffy — it’s 200+ pages but i believe 100 – 150 pages would be plenty for what he has to offer. it’s a repetitive about “power of mind”, “good attitude”. well, duh, i know that; so i really don’t need to hear the same message like 10 times. (above is my opinion only)

      regards,
      regards,

  9. hamid says

    Great read, thanks. Another thing you forgot is that we French people enjoy a yogurt almost every day. Its really a staple and we get yogurts at school lunches all the time (+more at home).
    And to add to the paradox, you should mention how much flour we eat daily. There is baguette and croissants in the morning. But also another “patisserie” usually for “goutêr” (afternoon snack), plus lunch could be a baguette sandwich and dinner could be pasta or pizza.

  10. says

    The French ARE essentially Paleo. There are so many over-laps that I cannot possibly address them all here: diet, food choices-cooking-preparation, activity, play, and lifestyle = utterly ancestral. I will depart with this: 36% obesity (USA) versus 16% obesity (France). Obesity in the USA hasn’t been in the 16% realm since 1980 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data)…

    • Chris says

      I’m pretty sure none of the wide definitions of “paleo” include bread with every meal and pastries every day (wheat + sugar). Dairy isn’t paleo either, regardless of the rationalisations. “Ancestral”, yes, but you have to be kidding me that the French diet could possibly be described as paleo!

      • says

        Ask all of the many tribal and nomadic peoples around the world if dairy from cows, goats, horses, camels. Llamas (and women) etc is some big cheat in their diets. Weston A Price reported on the statuesque Masai who consumed a huge proportion of their diet of milk from cows and blood from bulls, often mixed. I’m tired of the anti-dairy ‘paleo police’ slipping these flawed perspectives in. It’s such an urbanized view on dairy! If YOU have a problem with dairy products from every likely species, raw or pasteurized, young or aged, then don’t consume any and be quiet please.

        • Chris says

          Perhaps you need to be more careful with your assumptions MassageTeam. I do not eat paleo and have no issues with dairy consumption, nor did I indicate this in my comment. I was responding to Paula’s comment in pointing out that in none of the myriad definitions of “paleo” do the French eat a paleo diet. Since you introduced some snark, I will respond with my own – perhaps YOU should work on your reading comprehension before posting a paragraph attacking a strawman.

  11. Dorothy says

    Almost 30 years ago I lived in France for a year, and while I was there, eating mainly with French people, I lost two dress sizes. I ate butter on my radishes, I ate full fat yogurt, I ate animal foods at every meal.

    Too bad when I got home to the US, it was the late eighties, and the low fat / whole grain craze was in full swing. I attempted to keep the weight off by following that nutrition advice, and it led to horrible eating behaviors and metabolic derangement.

    I now eat a not quite paleo diet that includes full fat dairy and meals are structured very much like French meals except that I forgo the bread at breakfast (if I eat breakfast at all). Dessert is fruit and/or yogurt with occasional extravagances that I refuse to call cheats. Such a sensible and enjoyable way to eat.

  12. Aurelie says

    Thank you Chris for this article, I am french and i agree with most of your article. We also have to remember that our traditional diet is sadly changing and that the american way is taking over. In the last 10 years people have been eating pasta and pizza a lot which is absolutely not part of out diet (you would never make my grand dad eat pasta or even rice for this matter) and although many people still get a long break for lunch and are able to eat a 4 course meal many others are forced to do it the anglo saxon way and only get 30 minutes to grab a sandwich which is really sad and I am sure produces a lotof digestive issues in the population….All my grand parents are alive and healthy in their mid 80′s and eat a 4 course meal lunch and dinner. They make their own pate, start every meal with a small salad and finish it with cheese, yogurt and fruits.

  13. says

    I spend a lot of time in France as a historian and am constantly thinking about food and its history. One problem I see with this characterisation of ‘the French’ is that the national category of identity is only as old as industrialisation (at the most). In fact, even now, in many regions of France there are distinct culinary habits that do not resemble those described here. The use of duck fat, goose fat and lard is very common in many (especially Southern) regions. The Alpes regions have their own distinct and very cheesy cuisines. The Mediterranean-facing regions have much more use of olive oil than butter. Seafood is very popular too. And white wine is also very commonly consumed in many parts of the North.

    On farms I many places, breakfast is often a soup or casserole, not the bread and jam scenario.

    Its a complicate question why the French are still slimmer than Americans and have less CVD. Portion size is certainly a factor in low obesity levels. A lot people eat salads for lunch or evening meals in summer and spring. And while the idea of ‘physical fitness’ is a fairly marginal upper middle class practice, many people in French cities do walk a lot in their day, or ride bicycles or rollerblade as transport.

    It has to be said too though, there is still quite a powerful cultural injunction to remain slim. You just don’t go there. There is a plethora of dieting and slimming products sold in pharmacies, and social approval for slimness is very forthcoming.

    There is, I would say, generally much more fresh food consumed than in the US or Australia, and even many processed foods that one inspects in the supermarkets have fewer additives and preservatives, and tend just to include the ingredients that one would expect if making that thing at home.

    Unfortunately too, sugary junk food is increasingly prevalent in the diets of young people. But it has to compete with some very artisanal pastry and chocolate manufacture, which although sugary, is not quite the same in terms of its ability to trigger compulsive over-eating. Junk food has been specifically engineered to invoke those kinds of reward-based neurochemical responses.

    Freshly baked bread is indeed serve with most meals. I am trying to figure out to what extent French wheat has been affected by the globalised replacement with the ‘dwarf’ variety that has so many new gluten proteins implicated in gut permeability. I have often eaten bread in France because it is just so fresh and high quality, and never noticed it negatively affecting my health the way it did when I ate in Australia, the UK or the US.

    • Aurelie says

      I totally agree with you Alison, i am able to eat bread when i am in France but where I live In New Zealand it makes me really sick. I have heard many european people experiencing the same thing… it is true that we buy fresh bread every morning, it comes usually still hot from the bakery and if any left overs the next day we through it out.

      • Antony says

        The bread that you get from NZ shops, unless you go to up-market bakers, contain toxins:- soy flour, canola oil,&, acidity regulator (263), emulsifiers (481, 472e, 471).

    • PHK says

      i wonder if dwarf wheat is as widely used in Europe.
      a colleague of mine is from Bulgaria.

      he told me where he is from, there is plenty of Einhorn wheat field.

      regards,

  14. Bryan says

    If we subscribe to Ernest Curtis’ idea (cholesterol delusion) that the default diagnoses on death certificates in France are of myocarditis or hypertensive heart disease, rather than coronary heart disease, then this removes much of the paradox. I do wish that I could find real French croissants (which are mostly air and crumble in your hands) here in Cape Town. I enjoy my trips to France if for that reason alone! Thanks for whetting my appetite.

  15. Barralis says

    True, there is no French cuisine, but cuisines. Each region eat very differently, but they have the same principles as Chris said : a four course meal, more fat (butter in the north, olive oil), we used eat a lot of organs (and the price of meat is expensive, people started to eat this food again). We also eat les weird grains, corn here is supposed to be for chicken, we think soy/tofu has no taste, therefore why eat it. The old generation thinks that if a food has good taste, it can only be good for you. For me, after going paleo in France (which is easier than in America), and after i got rid of my craving for sugar and grains, after my tastebuds have changed, i certainly can agree with this old wisdom :)
    Lastly, thank you Chris for that phrase “Unfortunately, the conventional scientific community refuses to consider the possibility that France has better health because of their diet, rather than in spite of it.” You made my day, because it is something every French think but don’t dare to say because the “scientific community” prefers to talk about red wine and Duck fat and of a paradox. We are not a paradox :)

  16. Barralis says

    As a former chef, gone Paleo, it is a fantastic pleasure to rediscover traditional French recipe and eat them without guilt.

  17. Gregory Barton says

    “Although supermarkets are sadly becoming more and more popular in France.”

    Been to a French supermarket lately? Hundreds of different cheeses, pates, fresh meats, organic eggs, fresh vegetables. They are like giant delicatessens. Nothing sad about them at all.

  18. kem says

    My only complaint with French food is breakfast. My wife and I were there on a gite based, self guided cycle trip and the spare breakfast provided meant that we needed to have morning tea (we are kiwis) because we were starving by 10am. Usually, we would have tuna, (marvellous) cheese, a baguette and a roadside espresso.

    We found on our next cycle tour, Italians understand breakfast. Maybe that will be in another post.

    • says

      The Germans too understand breakfast! I’ve had very similar experiences when walking in the Alps.

      The most interesting thing was in Switzerland when we crossed from one, French speaking, valley to the next, which was German speaking. We went from days of white bread and jam (and those same 10AM “second breakfasts”!) to cured meats, cheeses and pickles. What a relief!

      The same French/German difference happens when staying in the Etap hotel chain: set €7 breakfast in France; bread, croissants and cereal. In Germany; boiled eggs, pâté, cured meats, pickles and yogurt.

      The French get much right (very right!) but the typical tourist breakfast can’t compare to the German version :)

      • Stephanie says

        We spent a week in Slovenia in May on a food tour (organized by a Weston A Price Foundation member). And their breakfasts there were great — all the hotels offered a wide mix of fruit, yogurt, juice (often including beet and carrot), charcuterie, muesli, eggs, croissants, local honey, cheese, vegetables… benefit of being in a European crossroads, I suppose! Oh how I miss those breakfasts. And all the other food there!!

        I can also say that I was quite worried about how all the rich animal foods they eat would affect my not-so-great digestion, especially since I am transitioning away from ~12 yrs of vegetarianism, and I did not have one single issue whatsoever. (The woman who organized our tour, Sylvia Onusic, studied the health of Slovenian immigrants living in NYC – I’m sure she would love to do a post on traditional Slovenian foods & health!)

  19. says

    Chris, what an excellent summary. A healthy view of food is KEY. Worrying about food, even nutrient-dense food, is stressful. The flavor of this article reminded me of Melissa McEwen’s recent post, “Breaking Up With Paleo.” I agree with her position and it has really helped me relax about my food choices.

    Looking forward to this series! (Italy is a must) ;D

  20. Stephanie says

    I don’t understand this “glorification” of french food. It might be better than food in the US, but I wouldn’t recommend to follow it. The way the French eat is a disaster.
    And they are not so healthy either. Diabetes, Cholesterol, heart diseases, you name it.
    And the government recommendations don’t help, No fat, grains and dairies at every meal !
    Everybody I knows follows those recommendations. And when you eat paleo, like I do, well…You’re putting your life and your kids life in danger of course !

  21. says

    I agree with you Chris! I have a cousin who migrated to France and told me about the French food culture. She gave me healthy and delicious French recipes. It’s really great! :-)

  22. Muriel says

    I eat paleo in France and it is not so easy.
    I agree with that good product are easily available : raw-milk cheese, good hormon-free meat… We still have small farms around the country.
    But, as pointed above, we have terrible sugary breafasts. And you hardly can’t find a different proposition, so I have to bring my own food for breakfast when I sleep in a hotel.
    And it is very difficult to say no to a food when it is proposed. People can’t understand why, take it personnaly even if I explain I am hypoglycemic or gluten intolerant. “Good food can’t be bad !” People can’t understand I don’t eat bread for instance, as it is part of our culture. And they are not aware of things such as sugar addiction, links between guts and mood…
    Governments recommandations are the same as in the US. And people tend to eat the same way, except on special occasions.

  23. Jane says

    The essence of the article is true. Unfortunately I can definitely confirm the posts above stating that the French diet is rapidly changing for the worse. I moved to France 10 years ago, lived here for 5 years, moved away, and have now come back. I’m in a less traditional area than before, but it’s still rural and the differences are shocking. The traditional restaurants have been replaced by pizzerias and places serving pre-made rubbish, and ready meals in the supermarkets are becoming much more prevalent. What’s really disturbing is that with the movement of the population out into the massive new housing estates on the edges of towns and villages, they now drive everywhere just like the British. So they are under-exercising and eating the wrong food, and just as you’d expect, this is leading to an increase in the kind of petty delinquency that became all too familiar in the UK in the 1990s. France is sadly catching up very quickly with the Anglo-Saxons, in all the wrong ways.

  24. Chantel says

    I spent a semester in the south of France back in 2003. I lost probably 10 lbs. I think it was a combination of fresh food, relatively little processed food, no snacking, smaller portions and a ton of walking. I drank too much and ate my fair share of pain au chocolate but most of what I ate was fresh and nutrient dense.

  25. PeggyC says

    I’ve been eating more or less the way the French do ever since reading “The Fat Fallacy”, by Dr. Will Clower. The only thing I’ve changed is to cut way back on the starches–bread and potatoes. My daughter lost a lot of weight eating like that and continues to eat that way and keep it off, though she does eat bread and potatoes. It’s not so much a paradox as, like you said, a whole different relationship with food. A combination of their way of eating with a lower carb/Paleo approach works well for me.

  26. Wenchypoo says

    Why is everybody so focused on the FOOD aspect when they look for healthy living secrets? I lived in Italy about a decade ago, and like France, much of the population WALKS…to the weekly open-air food market, to the bakery, to the pizzeria, wherever.

    It may not be so true today, but back then, only the “rich” owned cars, because they were taxed 9 ways from Sunday, and the fuel isn’t cheap either–it’s worse today because of the world economy collapse. Those who didn’t own cars rode the bus, and had to walk to and from stops.

    Combine all this walking with all the fat they consume, and you’ve got a great recipe for healthy longevity. Combine the French small portions with the fat and walking, and you’ve got the perfect ketogenic setup!

  27. Firebird says

    It really isn’t a paradox at all. What you are seeing is the fact that saturated fat has nothing to do with cardiovascular disease. What needs to be picked apart and mainstream media won’t do it because of threats to their advertising revenue is Ancel Keys’ Lipid Hypothesis and how it was flawed and cherry picked from the beginning.

    The real paradox is how Americans fight heart disease with low fat, high carbohydrate foods, yet have a high rate of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. That’s the paradox.

  28. Anna Edgar says

    I have lived in Switzerland (French/Geneva) and then the Alpes-Maritimes since 2002, and I’m not convinced that the franco-phone diet could be called “paleo”, nor that people walk or exercise more than in other western countries. I do agree that the Francophone diet is based more on a healthy combination of fresh seasonal local (with increasing imports) produce. I’m not sure what exactly links the francophone diet to such a lack of obesity, nor to such low levels of heart disease. The typical winter menu in Switzerland seemed to be 90% meat, potatoes and cheese, and the Alpes Maritimes region of France, being historically a recent addition formerly Italian, retains strong culinary links to Italian pasta and pizza. The region also has quite a significant Algerian/Morroccan population with foods such as couscous or tagine. I look around the locality of my work place (sophia antipolis) and I see as many French buying sandwiches at lunch on the hoof as I see people sat down for a lunch, and usually just two courses (starter, main and coffee). I see plenty people buying processed foods in the supermarket. There may still be this idyllic view of French village life, and ironically it is the ex-pat English non-working wives who seem to be the ones milling round the over priced local greengrocer, and at the local Friday morning market English would definitely be the language heard the most. The French families, ordinary folk, seem quite happy buying pre-packed poison panné, or super suger-packed breakfst cereals, or frozen pizza. However, in comparison to contemporary Britain there is still a strong preference for home cooked meals (not ready meals), preference for traditional restaurant menus (in this region that includes super thin crust pizza topped with a light tomato sauce and sprinkled with fresh ingredients). There area a lot of fresh vegetables consumed, and loads of salads, but then, a walk round the local Morrison’s in my parents’ home town in Scotland last week showed me a huge majority of locals buying fresh meat, fresh fish (fresher than i can get in my local french supermarket) and loads of fresh vegetables.

    I do notice a big difference from food in the UK, however, even from the healthiest of Scottish food, the Scots eat more pastry/cereal based foods than the continental europeans. Porridge or muesli for breakfast, toast with butter or honey or jam, lunchtime sandwiches with bread, bakeries packed full of scones, pancakes, buns, cakes, biscuits, shortbreads…steak pie with wonderful suet-based flakey puff pastry…and loads of potatoes. I can’t speak for other families but I notice the difference between my Mum’s home cooked veg (there is enough cooked for everyone to get one or two small crowns of over boiled broccolli and a spoonful of chopped overboiled carrots) and the meals i prepare at home in france with probably six times more vegetables, crunchy and often oven roasted.

    Not sure about the walking theory either. Perhaps in Paris it might be true, or cities such as Nice. However in the Alpes-Maritimes the world here was mostly developed in the late 60s through to the 1990s, and everything is set up for driving around. Of course there is public transport, but to get the average shopping, for food, clothes, household goods, get to work, go to the beach, etc etc, a car is really essential. There is an over priced Casino in my local village. The nearest supermarket is a ten minute drive away. Back home in Scotland my parent’s house is ten minute’s walk (south) from the local supermarket, ten minute’s walk (north) into the town centre, ten minute’s walk (east) from the beach and swimming pool/fitness centre and ten minute’s walk (west) to the botanic gardens or a leisurely river-side walk with children’s play parks. It is far easier to walk everywhere when I’m back on holiday in Scotland.

    Locally there are a lot of people who keep fit. They swim, play tennis, cycle (the very fittest, as the roads here were used in this year’s Tour de France for their challenging contours), run, and plenty families enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that goes with the sunny mediterranean climate. Plenty more i know do very little exercise, chain smoke as if it is an expression of french national identity, and pass the day sitting at café’s enjoying a leisurely rosé. There is a strange French culture though that seems to think women are supposed to be thin without being sporty. Sport seems to be more acceptable for men on the whole. When i go to the gym I am more likely to see women walking on the treadmill for half an hour and more likely to see men pushing the 20 minute 5k. I’m more likely to see men doing weights and women doing pilates, and more likely to see men playing football in the local sports ground while the women of my particular village seem to be quite invisible. I can’t run right now, recovering from a back/pelvis injury, but when i ran last year and the year before I was often the only woman i saw, but passed plenty men running the same route. This might be a village culture thing, cos i see more men sitting at the local bakery drinking coffee than women, and the same at the local bistro, although women are beginning to appear for a glass of rosé around apéro time, I strongly suspect that in my village there is a culture of woman at home and not of women who lunch. The younger generation (those in their 20s and 30s) seem to be more accepting of women who do sporty sports. I know a lot of women who go to dietitians and who follow “soup and vegetable” diets, and who get supplements from the supermarket or pharmacy to help them stay slim. Certainly under the age of 60 there is a strong cultural pressure for women to stay slim, and i guess the beach and sunbathing thing here adds to this as women want to stay in shape to wear bikinis on the beach.

    I guess it is easy to over generalise and say “the french way of life is paleo” because of the love of meat and veg, of butter and red wine. However, the French diet also places a strong emphasis on cheese, dairy, bread, creamy sauces, delicious fruit tarts with creamy custard and sweet syrupy glazes. Breakfast is simply croissant, coffee, chocolate, maybe yoghurt… as already mentioned it is practically impossible to get an omelette, scrambled eggs, bacon, or basically anything different from “french continental breakfast” in hotels.

    I think the increase in obesity in many western nations is far more complex than just comparing diets. After all, the basic diet has not changed much over the past 50 years. Lifestyles have changed, however, with central heating, car-dependent lifestyles, more sedentary jobs, less physically demanding house work and occupations, more TV watching, and generally busier and busier lives. A lot also has to do with marketing, as breakfast cereals such as “special K” sold as healthy contain just as much sugar as the Frosties along the shelf…

    One thing I would say though, is, cutting out gluten from my diet, cutting out dairy, and using the paleo idea as the basis for my meals and my eating has made me feel a million times better than i have for years. That’s not “french” or “english” or “american”, that’s just an individual choice to make changes to how i eat and in this case to embrace an experiment that seems to be giving excellent results.

    • Jean-Yves says

      agree with you, but don’t forget each region is different, and the region of Paris (1/3 of the population) can not use as much as car as in “Province”
      Today on France Inter (NPR equivalent) i learnt there are 3 millions more obese people since 1997. and right after there was a interview doctors and patient of an parisian hospital before and after surgery, and basically the advice is exercice more and eat less. Paleo has a long way to go here :(

      • Anna Edgar says

        I agree, most Parisians i know don’t even have a car, and ironically I do loads more walking when I’m in Paris than in do when at home in the Alpes-Maritimes, because here i need the car to do shopping, go to work, or even to go for a walk in the forest, but in Paris i walk or take the metro.

  29. says

    Thank you Chris for this great article. I agree that as much as it pays to be aware of food’s potential health benefits or risks, sometimes it’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude, than the right food with the wrong attitude.

  30. Roxie says

    Right from the beginning (at school), the French are taught to eat only 3 meals per day, and their portions are smaller. Their bodies are accustomed to wait the hours until the next meal, unlike the rest of us who for some stupid reason have bodies accustomed to consume breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper! And ours are not small meals either! There’s no paradox here. We simply eat too much, and they simply eat much less.

  31. Markus says

    I firmly believe that the health effect of eating what and like the french do is very much based on the fact that the people take the proper time to eat, are in groups and have good conversations, as opposed to gulp food down while walking (alone) back to the job. This also gives food a much higher societal value and maybe is so pleasantly cooked because of that.

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