French Women Don’t Get Fat. We’ve all heard about this theoretical, geographical advantage, but is it true? And if so, with a diet loaded in bread, cheese, butter and wine, how can it possibly be true? Turns out, it IS true and the answer may go beyond moderation and exercise.
I recently spent a week in Paris, a city so achingly beautiful and culturally rich, you’d need months to see it properly and partake of all the jewels it has to offer. From the art to the food, monuments and history, Paris is like no other city in the world. I could walk for hours around Paris and enjoy the fact that it feels like the largest open-air museum on the planet. It is spectacular.
But for a nutritionist, it is also a landmine of culinary no-no’s that in America would have me packing on the pounds. Every meal consists of bread, cheese, wine, croissants, fatty meats and seafood prepared in cream sauce. It is one decadent culinary event after another, all delicious and perfectly prepared and impossible to ignore.
So I didn’t ignore it. I instead kind of went for it. And I ate more bread, cheese, butter and cream in one week than in the last ten years combined! And here is the kicker, I lost 3 pounds! No kidding! It absolutely just melted away and I could feel it happening throughout the week. Which had been wondering… Can I move here, learn to speak French and make a go of life? And more seriously, what gives? What’s up with this scenario? How is it possible that I am eating more meals per day, each meal loaded in more fat and carbs than I’d allow myself in a week, and still lose weight? French paradox indeed!
I put on my scientist hat and set about trying to figure it out. Knowing that the brain understands satiety in two ways, through the consumption of fats and carbohydrates, I knew that some of the answers were likely due to this fact. In America, we eschew fats like a disease. Everywhere we look, there are treats and sweets touting “FAT-FREE!” in order to further entice us to eat. Our favorite cookies and ice cream are now available without fat in a misguided effort to win us back as customers, promising fewer consequences to our over-indulgences because, “look, there’s not fat!” Therefore, the implication is, there is no guilt! Anyone who eats fat-free cookies and ice cream can tell you that they are likely still struggling with their weight. Perhaps more than ever before.
Why is that? If you take out the fat you are also removing a lot of the calories, no? And if you are reducing calories then the weight should melt off, correct? Well, it’s not so simple. Because when a food manufacturer removes the fat, they are adding more of something else in order to compensate for flavor, to keep you coming back for more. The ingredient they add? Sugar!
When is a Calorie, not Just a Calorie?
One myth I feel compelled to blow out of the water is the idea that a calorie is a calorie and if you just reduce calories, the solution to the obesity problem will be eradicated. This is ridiculous. Since the advent of fat-free foods, our obesity epidemic has skyrocketed. We are fatter than ever and continuing to trend upwards. When we eat a calorie of avocado, let’s say, a healthy fat feared by dieters across the land, we take in a calorie, and that is that. When instead we take in a calorie of sugar, we take in a calorie that induces an insulin response that makes us continue to want to eat, specifically more sugar, and stores fat in our bodies. When the powers that be decided that cutting the fat was the way to solve the massive obesity epidemic they created a bigger problem because we are now consuming more refined and processed foods that trigger an influx of insulin that makes us hungry, intensifies our cravings and stores fat in our bodies.
Conversely, in France, everything has fat. There is no way to escape it. Ever make croissants? When I was younger, well before being a nutritionist was a thought in my mind, I used to make them once in a while. They are basically dough that is flattened and slathered with butter. You then continue to fold the dough, slather with more butter, fold, slather, fold, slather, until all you have is a gooey mess of buttery dough. You then roll and bake. It is loaded in fat. Crepes–one of France’s national treasures as far as I’m concerned–are made with ham and butter and mounds of cheese. And then there is just the cheese! A limitless variety of the finest, creamiest most delicious cheese to be found in one location in the world. And this is coming from a nutritionist that staunchly believes milk products are detrimental to our health. At least they are when consumed on a regular basis. (I make concessions when in Paris. Good thing I go to Paris only once every ten years). Then there are the main dishes that are also cooked with lots of fat and cream. Once night I ordered scallops, figuring that would give me a reprieve for a night, but they came out swimming in a cream sauce. I mean seriously, it is endless. There is fat in everything. Yet, there I was eating it and losing weight. Why? How can that be?
The Food to Brain Connection
Well, the reason is simple. When you are eating all that fat, it triggers your brain to feel full faster. I simply couldn’t finish a meal. And let me also say, the portions there are a lot smaller than they are here. So despite the smaller portions, I still couldn’t finish my food. The end result? I was likely eating fewer calories in general. Also, I was not overburdening my digestive system with too much food at once making it work harder than it needs to in order to digest. I was eating smaller portions that allowed everything to digest efficiently. And because there was so much fat in everything and because fat takes longer to digest than sugar and carbohydrates, I wasn’t hungry for hours. Incidental snacking didn’t happen. And meal-to-meal, my appetite diminished over the course of a day because I was still kind of okay from the prior meal. With portions diminishing throughout the day, I was then eating my smallest meal at night.
The opposite is true in America. Unfortunately, many of us start our day with cereal and milk, which has little fat and protein, burns off quickly and makes us feel hungry fairly early in the day. So we snack. And it is usually something refined like pretzels or fruit. Then lunch comes along and it likely consists of bread of some kind and perhaps a side of chips. Then inevitably we have a snack in the afternoon because we’re feeling “noshy” and by dinner we’re starving, thereby often eating our largest meal of the day at night. It is the exact opposite in France. And we have the waistlines to prove that it’s not working.
It is also true that while I was there I did a lot of walking. I walked everywhere, even up to Sacre Coeur, which is about an hour walk from central Paris and largely uphill, but the truth of the matter is, I walk a lot here. Perhaps not as much, but I definitely walk a good amount. Additionally, I work out when I am at home, going to yoga, running, etc, and I didn’t do too much of that while I was there. Certainly no yoga, although I couldn’t resist taking a run by the Seine… Overall activity level was slightly higher but nothing that would suggest a three-pound weight loss considering the amount of fat I was eating. But there it is. It happened.
This all being said, please don’t run out and start loading up on cheese and cream and other rich fats. It is important to be respectful of the impact food has on our bodies, so being mindful of consumption no matter where you are is valuable. The message here is don’t be fooled by the idea that if something is “fat-free” it is okay to eat. It is not necessarily so. And also don’t be afraid to include some high quality fats in your diet like avocado, salmon, nuts and nut butters. These fats will likely help you eat less overall. And most of all, see if you can lessen the burden on your digestive system by eating your smallest meal at night. This in and of itself is one great way to keep your weight down.
It is important to enjoy pleasurable things like great food, wine, and travel. For many of us, these are fundamental aspects to a balanced life. What is also important is to be respectful of what we consume. Let it be made from whole foods. Let it be nourishing. Use the best possible ingredients and then savor every bit of it. Have respect for it’s power to make you feel satisfied and also it’s power, if overdone, to make you sick. Approach food with the respect it deserves rather than treating it like a drug that can be used to numb us against the struggles of life. Enjoy it and savor it. Then go out and walk it off.
Guilt-Free Chocolate Recipe
Here is a treat for you as you begin to practice mindful and pleasurable eating. My colleague and friend, Catherine Boyer, an excellent therapist in NYC, who also does amazing work breaking addictions and improving sleep with neurofeedback, shared this guilt-free chocolate recipe with me a couple of years back. Since then I have shared the recipe with many of my clients who were looking to move away from their candy addiction but found that total abstinence led to big time binging. This was the perfect solution. Rather than sugar, Catherine uses agave nectar, which has a milder insulin response. She also uses high quality chocolate, which has loads of antioxidants. The end result is a deliciously rich but not too sweet dessert that will satisfy your sugar craving in just one chocolate. Plus you get the benefit of all those free radical fighting chemicals. But like with all things, enjoy in moderation.
- 5 squares (one 9.7 oz. bar) Scharffen Berger unsweetened baking chocolate
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 tablespoons light agave nectar
Melt chocolate in microwave proof bowl (three minutes at 100%) or in top of double boiler. Meanwhile, stir agave into water until dissolved. Stir agave mixture into melted chocolate and stir for about 30 seconds, until thickened, smooth and glossy. Drop by teaspoon onto two dinner plates. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove from plates with spatula and refrigerate in covered container. If you lick the bowl, the candy will be more bitter tasting than after it has set up, when it become just deliciously dark.
Neurofeedback is like having a personal trainer for your brain. The NeurOptimal® system gives your brain real time feedback about what it’s doing that your system then uses to optimize the way it runs. Changing your brain waves for the better means changing how you feel, how you act, how you interact with others. Most people see increases in focus and productivity, and improvements in mood and sleep. Reactivity, including anxiety and anger, goes down, leaving you freer to respond to others and to be your authentic self. For more information, please visit Catherine’s New York Neurofeedback Website.