This so-called “French paradox redux” that allows French people to eat all the “forbidden” foods and stay thin while Americans get fatter has been demystified by a new Cornell study.
Researchers found that while the French use internal cues -- such as no longer feeling hungry -- to stop eating, Americans use external cues -- such as whether their plate is empty, whether their beverage has run out and whether their TV program is over.
The study, which analyzed questionnaires from 133 Parisians and 145 Chicagoans, also found that the heavier a person is, the more they rely on external cues to tell them to stop eating, and the less they rely on whether they feel full.
Over time, the researchers concluded, instead of relying on external cues, using your body’s internal cues to tell you when to stop eating may improve your eating patterns. If only we all were born in France, we would all be blessed with the inherent ability to eat fattening foods to our heart’s content, and still stay lean and trim. I am, of course, using sarcasm. A French person has every chance to get fat as an American does (just ask any French exchange student who comes to the United States -- they probably ended up going home at least 10 pounds heavier).
What is it about the French culture that seems to favor thinness, even in the midst of all of that bread, cheese, butter, wine and heavy sauces? In a sentence: they eat real food, and they savor it.
Allow me to explain.
French People Eat REAL Food
Unlike the United States where mega-supermarkets are the norm, many people in France still shop for fresh unprocessed food every day or two. They have access to wonderful farmer’s markets, specialty food shops, and butchers that sell fresh produce, hand-made cheeses, high-quality meats, and fermented, sourdough breads. (And many of them WALK to get there.)
Whereas an American may sit down to a breakfast of a cheese omelet made with processed cheese and store-bought eggs, a similar French-made omelet would include naturally fermented cheese made from raw milk from grass-fed cows, and eggs that came from a small farm, and were not refrigerated but simply left out on the counter (which is the best way to store your eggs, assuming they are of high-quality).
Now I am not one to recommend eating cooked eggs at all, but my point is that the difference in food quality is quite extraordinary. Though Americanized junk food and fast food is slowly infiltrating France, it is still not the norm, at least for the older generations. The majority of their food comes fresh, without preservatives and food colorings, and without synthetic ingredients. And did I mention the butter? French people eat this regularly, along with a host of other full-fat foods. Contrast this to the United States, where many seek out fat-free or low-fat versions that are often pumped full of corn syrup or artificial sweeteners as an alternative.
These low-fat, artificially sweetened foods are a complete disaster, ruining your body’s ability to count calories or even sense when you are full. Not so with traditional French fare, that is so rich you’ll likely feel full after just a few bites.
And that is part of the secret, which contrasts quite remarkably with the United States.
My Recent Grocery Store Experience
I typically don’t go grocery shopping but my living arrangements have recently changed, and when I was in the grocery store yesterday I was behind an attractive young woman who was clearly not overweight. I just about fell over when I saw what she put on the conveyor belt: a loaf of white bread, two-pound packet of cookies, crackers, poor-quality highly processed lunch meat and processed American cheese.
There wasn’t a shred of real food in her entire order. She probably is one of the multitude that have been successfully brainwashed by the food industry and doesn’t realize that in a few short years her choices will slowly but surely steal her health, cause her to age prematurely and join the two-thirds of the United States that is overweight.
French Food Satisfies
A common complaint of people who come to my wellness center near Chicago is that they don’t feel satisfied after eating. Many of them are even eating what would be considered healthy foods, yet they are still not satiated.
In France, no one is leaving the table hungry. Yet they’re not leaving it feeling stuffed, either. As this Cornell study found, the French do something that I often recommend: They listen to their bodies.
When they feel full, they stop eating.
Unfortunately, in America many have lost the ability to sense when they are full. This comes from a combination of things, but a major one is leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that communicates to your brain, letting it know how much energy your body has stored, and whether or not it’s full. Once full, one of leptin’s functions is to reduce your appetite and induce fat burning.
Low leptin levels (leptin resistance) in your brain, however, will signal your body to keep eating and storing more fat. How do you become leptin resistant? By eating the typical American diet full of sugar, refined grains, processed foods and not a whole lot else.
In France, where they eat a minimal amount of processed and refined foods, leptin levels are probably much closer to where they need to be, lest their body’s natural ability to regulate appetite, and weight, remains intact.
French meals are also more satisfying because they are savored. It takes about 20 minutes for your food to be digested enough, and a signal sent to your brain, telling you that you are full. In France, you would still be working through your first course at this time, while in America you could easily polish off way too many calories in the 15-minute span you give yourself for lunch.
Wait: French People DO Get Fat
The obesity rate in France has doubled in recent years and has now topped off at 12 percent. In the United States, for comparison, the obesity rate is about 34 percent.
What is causing the French to get fat?
A change in their eating habits, which are increasingly departing from traditional ways and succumbing to the modern world of fast food outlets, processed convenience foods, and junk-food snacks.
And so, it seems, no one culture is immune to the temptations of junk food, fast food and processed “meals” that you can have ready in five minutes. But YOU certainly can be, and your health, and weight, will thank you for it. Here are some tips that will help:
- Rather than depriving yourself of foods you love, find out which foods are right for your body by learning your nutritional type. Indulging in these foods will make you feel satisfied, and help you lose weight.
- Ditch the supermarket and, as much as possible, get your food from local farmer’s markets, food coops and specialty shops.
- Invest some time in preparing meals for your family. Food made from scratch is always better for your health and your waistline than processed versions.
- Eat slowly. Enjoy your food and mealtime with your family, savor every bite of nourishing food you put in your mouth, and if possible, never eat on the run.
- Remove the unconscious blocks that might be causing your urges to eat junk food.