French Women Don't Get Facelifts: How Eating Right Can Help You Age Well

To manage our aging well, we need to look into the mirror to see our self as we truly are on the inside and the outside. Of course, the two sides are deeply connected. French women tend to approach the stages of the second half of one’s life with an “attitude.”

Attitude is a strategy with a plan of action to realistically assess the options for a healthier and more joyful life and fine tune changes to maximize the results. We can't fight genetics too much, but we absolutely can control a lot in our environment that includes everything from nutrition to exercise, lifestyle, relationships, healthcare, grooming, dressing to eating. And for me, an attitudinal look at health and wellness begins with breakfast. Pourquoi pas?

It was a Frenchman, a foodie philosopher in the nineteenth century named Brillat Savarin, who first said, “We are what we eat.” And it becomes truer and truer as we age.

Mirror, mirror, am I eating three meals a day?

Am I skipping one meal and bingeing on another?

Do I know what I am putting in my body?

Am I snacking between meals?

Am I eating when I am not hungry?

Am I eating balanced, nutritious meals?

Do I have “offenders” (foods that I OD on or that are not good for me)?

Is what I eat adapted to my age and lifestyle?

As I grow older, I know that the more I learn, the more I know how much I don’t know. I appreciate that it takes a lifetime for most of us to build our knowledge database and mental monitor when it comes to eating healthy and with pleasure.

Ideally, it would be great to begin learning early with a mother who knows about food, nutrition, cooking, and the effects of the bad food, including junk food, too much sugar and salt coming from processed food (and all that take-out food), as well as eating too much in restaurants.

My Parisian friend Guillemette is trying to be such a mother to her young daughter, who does not eat processed food and started to learn to cook at age three. But not all of us are so lucky, so we must use our heads.

Restaurants, whether fast-food chains or fine restaurants, can be dangerous. Chefs are not great masters at balance or nutrition and are notorious for extremes in salt and sugar, even when they use quality ingredients. It’s the nature of the beast. You'd think a preventive regimen would be mandatory in health and nutrition courses each term in cooking schools and medical schools! France is fast waking up to this.

I had to go back to childhood to remember why I am not a fan of snacks (besides the fact that when I eat three meals a day, I don’t need one). Indeed, it was my mother who taught my brother and me, with subtleness, to avoid them. She’d say something like “You just had lunch,” or “We are going to have dinner soon,” or “Have a glass of water” and distract us from our nagging.

It worked.

While snacking was not really an option, the French sometimes take a small fourth meal called goûter, an occasional taste of something in the afternoon. We kids were granted this small bite after a long bike ride or some activity. Not a daily milk-and-cookies moment or a British afternoon tea, but an occasional nutritional pick-me-up, which I saw my parents partake of only on a holiday or weekend when we had visitors.

Breakfast should be the most important meal of the day at any age. Once people know why they need breakfast and the problems that can happen later when they compensate for not having it, change becomes easier.

At home, Mom would prepare our simple breakfast way before we were up—going out to get fresh bread or baking on the weekend—and it was never rushed, though both she and my father had jobs.

We'd sit down to eat the typical French breakfast of those days, which may not have been the very best nutritionally, but surely had the inclusion of carbs/protein/fat: a slice of toast with a sliver of butter, a bit of jam, and coffee with milk. My parents had the same breakfast with an extra slice or two of bread.

That was pretty much it during the week, but in those days, we kids had a mid-morning glass of milk at school to sustain us until lunch, the main meal of the day.

My breakfast changed a lot when I started working in America. First, I needed the sustained energy, but also I discovered all sorts of good breakfast choices—including eggs—which we never had at the start of the day in France. Then I read and learned about all the options. At 30, I made some big changes in the way I ate, and again fine-tuned them at 40, 50, and 60.

For me, the daily bowl of cereal of my thirties gave place to a varied breakfast: basically yogurt for Monday, eggs for Tuesday, whole wheat toast and cheese with a half grapefruit for Wednesday, oatmeal for Thursday, and so on. Variety was key.

Today, I've made more changes and savor my magical breakfast (yogurt with flaxseed oil, lemon juice, honey, and ground unsweetened whole wheat cereal with walnuts, as detailed in The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook) at least every other day, and certainly always if I have a meeting, lecture, yoga class, or anything besides my morning of writing, when I know that lunch will be at a regular time.

I am still learning to eat slowly and breathe deeply—a constant challenge, as is simply and gently dealing with my limits and adapting to them.

Don’t skip a meal, as you'll risk lacking vitamins and minerals. If you really don’t have the time to lunch or want to reduce your overall food intake, just have something with protein and a minimum of carbs and fat, such as a yogurt. Or what about a soup, generally a source of many good things, including fiber? My aunt (Tante Berthe) used to say that warm soup feels like the velvet in the stomach.

When dealing with holiday meals, beware the danger of confusing sensations of hunger with sensations of satiety. The risk is losing your inhibition and eating way more than normal, thus deregulating your system. Avoid the four-pound bonus at year-end holiday. Indulge, but eat with your head and compensate over a few days.

Again, put pleasure first; if something sounds or looks too good to resist, go ahead, take a deep breath, and forget guilt or anxiety, but be aware of your sensations of hunger/satiety. You don’t have to overeat to enjoy. Sometimes just a few bites will satisfy your mental and physical hunger.

Adding the pleasure factor and not denying yourself, but practicing moderation and balance, is a sure way to lose weight or at least to not gain any. At moments of eating doubt, try to drink big glasses of sparkling waters without too much salt in them (happily, big names such as San Pellegrino and Perrier have zero salt but some calcium)…and drink slowly.

Excerpted with permission from French Women Don't Get Facelifts.

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