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The French Paradox

The French Paradox

Picture of Beatrice Motamedi

I've spent years covering health and medicine, and because I teach kids, I'm especially aware of the public health gospel: Control your diet, exercise, and if you smoke, stop.  

But the person who's really taught me about healthy living is my Aunt Nicole.

Nicole lives near Draguignan, in the heart of Provence. Her home is perched on a hillside that overlooks vineyards, a neighbor whose horse brays annoyingly at the stroke of six every morning, and Flayosc, a medieval town whose narrow streets are home to exactly one boulangerie, one fromagerie, a small Super-U and a café where my Uncle Germain likes to take his pastis when he's through working in his olive orchard.

Let me stop before you perish of envy: Yes, in many ways, it's Paradise. In a place where the wine flows, the cheese beckons and the days are long and lazy, a visitor might be forgiven for gluttony. In fact, when I packed for a visit last June, I took my fat jeans, the skirt with the elastic waistband, the shorts I typically wear in my garden. Coming out of a long, tough school year, I intended to relax and indulge.

But something unexpected happened.

After visiting my auntie last summer, I came home lighter, and not only in spirit - I mean lighter. I lost 10 pounds. Other things changed: I drank less, my skin seemed clearer, and I slept better than I had in months.

It's known as the French paradox, but it goes much further than that. 

Unlike dieting in the U.S., taking care of oneself in a French family is less of an individual, intentional act, and more a set of behaviors backed by a powerful cultural consensus. For example, we don't eat a lot of red meat, or animal based protein of any kind - maybe twice a week and only at dinner - because it's so expensive. The exception is jambon (ham), a food product that seems to thrive despite the high land costs and other economic barriers that limit the production of beef or chicken.

With an alcohol content of 6% to 8%, the wine we drink is much less potent than the "killer zinfandels" (12% - 14%) from California, where I live. We drink the first glass neat; if we have a second glass, often we cut it with water. We eat a ton of fruits and vegetables, not because we're virtuous but because we're cheap; my uncle can grow much of what we need, and salads are filling and nutritious. Finally, we drink a ton of water, partly because of the heat, and partly because it's understood that this is good for your digestive system, and so you do.

We don't snack. Ever. At most, if hunger pangs hit, you can grab a few walnuts from a small glass bowl, the only food, besides bottled water, that's intentionally left out on the kitchen table between meals. You could also have a piece of fruit, though someone will likely point out that you are eating what you'll have later for dessert. If I so much as approach the refrigerator in the middle of the afternoon, chances are my auntie will stop me and ask, "Didn't you eat enough at (breakfast, lunch, dinner)? Didn't you like the food?" True, my auntie can be a champion nag, but it's astonishing how stopping and thinking about what you're putting in your mouth makes you much less likely to stuff it.

In France, it's not that the quality of the food is so different; it's that you think about eating in a completely different way. Portion control is constant, and food is not seen as the solution to all problems. The day after I arrived, I woke up, hung over from jet lag, and downed my cup of coffee in a single gulp. Germain looked at me, amused. Slowly, as if measuring out a ration, he poured me another cup. I eyed the pot; there were just two cups left, and my mom and dad still hadn't had breakfast. The implication was clear: Provence would not be the land of the bottomless coffee cup. If I wanted to wake up, I would have to try something other than caffeine, like actually getting up and doing something, preferably in the garden, where the sunlight would reorient my body to its new time zone.

I have never seen a potato chip in my auntie's house. Except for the daily baguette, I have never seen white bread. Croissants and pastries are rare pleasures, an indulgence for children. Many of the condiments we might consider staples - mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, American cheese - exist but in  different or reduced form.

On the other hand, every meal included at least five courses: a glass of rose and a handful of nuts, to stimulate the appetite; a first course of tomatoes or beets or fava beans, dressed with a vinagrette; a main course, with meat and more vegetables; then salad and cheese. We always had dessert - a lemon tart, a square of chocolate, a piece of fruit -something sweet to tell our bodies that the meal was over. Despite all this, at first, I left the table hungry; I was consuming fewer calories, so I didn't have my typical feeling of satiety. Over the course of a few days, however, my appetite pangs decreased as my metabolism adjusted to the idea of regular meals with enough calories to get me to the next one.

To be sure, not all is parfait in France: An alarming rise in childhood obesity in 2001 prompted health officials to adopt a series of measures which appear to have brought the risk of obesity to below 10% over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, that compares to estimates that as much as half of all American children are overweight, with half of those defined as obese. A study of New York city gradeschoolers during the 2008-09 school year found that 40 percent were obese or overweight; in Harlem zip codes, the number rose to 48%.

True, a Provencal vacation is a dream, difficult and perhaps impossible to replicate in inner-city Oakland, where I work with kids, or even downtown Paris, for that matter. But once you experience that alternate rhythm, it makes sense: Wake early, eat sparingly, work in the garden (or wherever you do). Break for lunch; never skip it, but again, eat moderately. Rest, even for a half hour; take a breath before you begin the second part of your day. Prepare and eat dinner thoughtfully; instead of eating anything and eating it fast, take time at the table and get up before you feel fully satisfied. Limit alcohol to one glass. Then get ready for tomorrow. I know how impossible it would be to live that way in our inner cities, but the stubborn Frenchwoman in me wonders why we can't.

Since my stay in Provence, unfortunately, I've gained back some weight, but not all of it. And if I reach into my heart, in that place where you see first and think second, I find a sense memory of balance, orderliness and peace. You can't be on vacation all the time, and I can't afford to see my auntie every summer. But the next time I pour myself a cup of coffee, I remember my uncle and I stop at one cup.

I really don't need more. I just needed him to tell me.


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This is delightful and intriguing!

Would you please comment on the use of mustard, in particular?  Under what circumstances is it used and in what form?

In the dog that didn't bark department, your description of what you ate didn't include processed food (other than the baguettes), and there is no added sugar described outside the small non-fruit desserts.

It may be significant that the reduction in wheat and sugar led to your ability to feel satiated enough not to eventually desire between meal snacks.  It could be a positive feedback loop which keeps calorie counts in control.  I wonder if you would again lose weight if you reverted to this type of dietary pattern.

The foods you ate also are rather nutrient dense, and so I wonder if you eventually felt invigorated at least in part due to that - which would lead to feeling more incined to do more physicial activity (see your morning coffee/activity para).

It may turn out that this isn't a paradox at all, but rather healthy feedback systems in play which have been disrupted with the standard American dietary patterns....


Picture of Beatrice Motamedi


It's funny you should mention mustard, because after i left my aunt in Provence, I went to Paris, where I visited the Maille store, home of the famous mustard maker, where I have never seen so many varieties — mustard with apricot, mustard with curry, even mustard with chocolate (something I don't need to try again). The French adore their mustard and use it just as Americans do — on sandwiches, with meat, sometimes with crackers. The rustic stone-ground variety we bought was so good that my husband and I went to the park and ate it straight out of the jar.


And when it comes to nutritional value, French mustard and French's yellow mustard are condiment cousins; both check in at about 3 calories per teaspoon, though dijon mustard has slightly higher levels of sugar, carbs and sodium. The problem isn't the mustard. It's what you're slathering the mustard on.


As for the dog: She's not barking, because she didn't eat much processed food. The closest I came was muesli, which my aunt buys because my uncle likes coconut and he can't grow that. The other processed foods I ate were pork products (salami and jambon cru, which resembles prosciutto) and dairy products. If you've ever been to the dairy section of a French grocery store, you'll know that yogurt comes in an infinite array of guises, some healthy and some dripping with added sugar; if the French have a dietary Achilles heel, this is it. But the yogurt we ate was plain, except for the herbs that my uncle would snip into his portion at the table. 


I do think you're correct in observing that the foods I ate were nutrient dense and low carb. And after a week, I did feel more energetic; I sensed that my metabolism had somehow righted itself and that food had become more like fuel and less like a way of satisfying a craving or appetite. Funny thing is, before I left for France, I bought a copy of the South Beach Diet, thinking that I'd keep it in reserve for the extra pounds I was sure I'd have to lose when I returned. No rice, no white potatoes, no bread — how in the world would I do it? Well, I did it, and of all places, it was in France.


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