After recently spending a few weeks in the South of France surfing, eating ice cream, drinking wine and eating crepes at lunch like the rest of the country, I couldn’t help but notice that almost no one was overweight. In fact, according worldobesity.org, France’s obesity rate for both men and women is less than half that of the U.S. population.
No one appeared to be obsessively working out (or even wearing workout clothes), eating kale and quinoa, or subsisting on green smoothies.
So, what was their secret?
Turns out, there are two.
They were walking everywhere, eating real food at every meal, living within their means (I saw few people use credit cards), spending time in the cafes with friends and extended family, drinking copious amounts of red wine… and eating ice cream. I have never seen so many ice cream cones consumed in my life. But there was a significant difference: They were small. I didn’t see any jumbo waffle cones dipped in chocolate, rolled in candy and topped with three softball-sized scoops of ice cream. For the most part, these treats consisted of a half cup of ice cream on a small cone. Here are my French-sourced secrets to staying fit and healthy (without taking the joy out of eating).
1. Size matters.
Everything (with the exception of taste) was small. I mean, a lunch portion was served ona plate the size of a saucer. This took some getting used to, since I'm a Texas girl used to eating a big plate of Mexican food, a basket of chips and salsa, and maybe a margarita in one sitting.
One afternoon before a big surf session, I ordered an entree and a salad. The lovely waitress said to me with questioning eyes? “Les deux?” (both of them?) like I was a giant Texas hog that didn’t understand French. I explained to her that I was paddling out and needed extra calories and she shrugged her shoulders with a bit of disdain and put my order in.
I had ordered some calamari. Again, a portion of a small saucer with a few veggies on the side and a little bowl with two tiny pieces of baguette in it. Just enough to soak up the leftover juice. No more.
When it arrived, I was so glad I had ordered a salad to go with my main course because it was so small. But an interesting thing happened. I could barely finish the calamari. It was so delicious, so fresh, so flavorful that it satisfied me. I needed significantly less food to feel substantially more satisfied.
2. Quality and taste trump everything.
It actually seemed pretty amazing that I could be satisfied with so little food. Notice I said satisfied instead of full. There is a big difference. In the U.S., we say to children after they eat, “Are you full?” In France, they say, “Are you satisfied?”
I am afraid we are conditioning our children to look for a feeling of being stuffed rather than being satisfied.
As a parent, it is difficult not to do. We live in a culture of people who have access to everything, every day, at the click of a button. The world has been our oyster from our childhood. I think this has cultivated an entitled mindset—that we can and should have everything that we want. That more is better. That bigger is better, and as a culture we are always reaching for the next pinnacle. And you might be thinking, "Hell yeah, why not? Bigger is better!"
You see, I think we may be patently insatiable. We are so hungry, and truthfully, we don't even know what it is. I wonder what would happen if we focused on better instead of more. Would we be more nourished, more satisfied, and less inclined to overeat?
As a personal experiment, I am devoting more time to cooking and shopping at my farmer’s market. I’m using mostly fresh foods and herbs which are more expensive, but interestingly, my grocery bills have not gone up because it seems like everyone in my home is eating less. Because I am taking the time to prepare better meals, we are sitting down to eat them together more often.
Nothing in life is free, and bigger and better do not come without a cost. We have sacrificed the quality and taste of our food to make it more affordable so we can consume more. We have sacrificed good ingredients and accepted preservatives in the name of convenience, and who knows what the cost to our our health, and the health of our future generations will be? As a fertility specialist for the last 17 years, I am particularly interested in the impact our food and weight have on fertility. These are factors in fertility we can actually control.
So, if this way of life is all we know, how do we begin to change? How do we learn to seek satisfaction instead of sickness?
Change is hard—especially when it comes to food. To make matters worse, so much of our food contains things like excessive salt and sugar that make them more addictive than nutritious. That said, regardless of how hard it might be, I encourage you to take a few baby steps this week to putting more real, locally grown, seasonal food in your diet and to start eating on smaller plates. See what happens for you. Even Google is using this trick to help their employees eat healthier. It’s worked for them, and it can work for you too.
When I came home from France there was a loaf of 100 percent whole wheat bread on the counter. It had been there for 23 days. It was just as fresh as the day I bought it. I have been eating this bread and feeding it to my children for years. Suddenly I was disgusted at the thought of what they must have put in this otherwise “healthy" food to give it a month-long shelf life and, more importantly, by the impact of eating this bread on a daily basis.
It is illegal to put preservatives in bread in France.