French Diet Secret: Eat Well but Stay Active

Last Editorial Review: 3/28/2005

French women may have the answer on how to enjoy food without wrecking your waistline

By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

When you're being "good," do you settle for cardboard cookies, head for the gym five times a week, and think food is a four-letter word? Eat your heart out, because across the Atlantic French women enjoy rich pastries, loathe exercise, and think food is one of life's greatest pleasures. And they don't get fat.

The good news is that their secret is out, thanks to the best-selling book, French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, by Mireille Guiliano. There's no counting carbs or calories or memorizing the glycemic index. Losing weight boils down to a few simple principles very similar to those in another popular book, The Martini Diet: The Self-Indulgent Way to a Thinner, More Fabulous You!, by California native Jennifer Sanders.

"These books aren't intended to be diets per se," says Cindy Moore, MS, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She adds that in some ways they are consistent with the USDA 2005 Dietary Guidelines. "They're about making small changes for life. They're not a quick fix but more about changing your outlook on life, your perspective on food, and being active in ways that you enjoy. If you'll take the time to appreciate food with all of your senses, you won't need to have a lot of it."

And although the authors don't advocate counting calories, Moore says, "The bottom-line message of these books is to consume fewer calories and burn more."

'Diet' Is a Four-Letter Word

Guiliano, who is CEO of Clicquot, Inc., says that one reason French women don't get fat is that their sensible approach to eating comes naturally. It's part of their culture.

Adopting their way of thinking and eating will take about three months before becoming second nature. Start by keeping a food diary for three weeks. Record why you want to lose weight, why you've gained weight, and a food inventory so you can identify problem foods that you could cut back on or eliminate. Culprits in the American diet typically include potato chips, bagels, pasta, pizza, fried foods, juices, beer, hard liquor, candy bars, ice cream, soda, and "junky" chocolate.

At this point her approach begins to sound like a diet. For two days, you will eat nothing but leek soup. Hang in. It gets better.

Become a Food Snob

Guiliano advocates choosing a variety of high-quality foods, buying produce in season, and avoiding most prepared foods, especially processed foods. She says that French women know their way around a market and shop several times a week, buying only what they need for the next day or two. They tend to eat more fish than vegetables, more vegetables than fruit, and yogurt twice a day.

Sanders tells WebMD it's important to have a guiding philosophy about food. "If you're not paying attention, it's easy to pack on pounds unconsciously." Her philosophy is expressed in three rules: "Eat only the very best. Eat somewhat less of the very best. Eat the very best only at mealtimes."

"Become a food snob," she says. Drinking soda is childish. Real grown-ups don't walk around slurping sugary coffee or even water from paper cups. And in spite of calling her book The Martini Diet, she warns that real adults don't binge on alcohol. She lists foods to avoid, such as huge, commercially baked muffins, anything that comes in a package of 12 or 24, and foods with silly names, like Tater Tots and Pop Tarts.

Instead, indulge in fresh, chemical-free foods and foods with adult-sounding names, like Veal Oscar and Crepes Suzettes. "Anytime you deny yourself, you'll jump face-first into it," she says.

Moore agrees that it's important to allow yourself to eat foods you enjoy. "Sometimes people get into the mindset when they're being 'good' or dieting that mediocre taste is all they're entitled to. Deprivation doesn't work."

You've heard it before: Ditch the mega-sized bags of M&Ms, and enjoy a single bite of expensive chocolate. The French woman's secret to indulging is feeling satisfied with tiny portions. It's a phenomenon that Moore, who is director of Nutrition Therapy at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, calls "taste fatigue." "After a couple of bites, your enjoyment is diminished with each bite."

"The French don't look on it as a little portion, but as a treat."

She adds that the message of tiny portions might get lost when translated to the American culture. "The French don't look on it as a little portion, but as a treat."

Think you can't stop after one bite of your favorite indulgence? Sanders has what she calls "Cinnabon-avoidance techniques." After a bite of chocolate or a whiff of cinnamon, pop a minty breath strip on your tongue. Similarly, if you have a certain vulnerable time of day, try placing a whitening strip on your teeth. "You can't eat for an hour," she says.

Another strategy for managing a food nemesis is to gradually cut back portion sizes, says Guiliano. In this way you can trick your body into being satisfied with less.

Savor Food

"Indulgence" in the U.S. has come to mean supersized meals available on every corner and all-you-can-eat buffets. To the authors of indulgent diet books, it's about bringing all the senses to the experience of eating. It means eating three meals a day and not dining while watching television, reading, or driving a car. French women spend time shopping for food, preparing it, and eating.

Moore believes there's still a place for fast-food restaurants. "Many are modifying their options to include small green salads, apple slices, and baby carrots. And in an urban environment, they may be the safest places for children to play. You don't have to order a supersized meal. If you enjoy a Whopper, get a Whopper Jr. without french fries. Listen to the cues your body sends. Become more appreciative of what you're doing instead of taking it for granted."

Exercise Still on the French Menu

French women don't like exercise or gyms, says Guiliano, but they walk everywhere. She recognizes that this aspect of French culture might be hard for American women to emulate. She also recommends stair climbing and sit-ups.

Sanders, whose book was published months before Guiliano's, admits to having "Paris-envy" because the French lifestyle is so conducive to walking. Rather than driving up to the supermarket door, the French woman walks to the bakery shop, walks to another shop for produce, walks to the butcher's, etc.

She personally likes indulgent exercise that makes her look good and requires a great wardrobe. Horseback riding or swimming or dancing are examples. Even walking can be indulgent if it's on a beach in Hawaii, and walking to get somewhere, as French women do, feels urbane and glamorous.

Use the Zipper Test, Not the Scale

The authors advocate getting rid of the scale and paying attention to what your zipper is telling you. Moore tells WebMD this is a sensible approach because becoming more physically active adds muscle, which weighs more than fat.

"I think the message of these books is that you only go around once, so savor the small things that make life enjoyable," she says. "That doesn't have to mean overindulging. It means being selective about what you choose to enjoy."

Published March 7, 2005.

SOURCES: Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director, Nutrition Therapy at Cleveland Clinic Foundation; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Jennifer Sanders, author, The Martini Diet: The Self-Indulgent Way to a Thinner, More Fabulous You!. Mireille Guiliano, author, French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure.

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