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November 14, 2004 - One more time...

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Regarding my hometown - 'A croissant in Paris is one ounce,' notes Chris Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, 'while in Pittsburgh it's two.'


Odd.  I found this recently -


Let them eat cake
They don't diet and they don't spend hours panting round the gym. So how can French women put away as much ice-cream, rich pastries and steak frites as they want and yet stay so slim? Mimi Spencer gets her teeth into the 'French paradox', which has baffled the world's best scientific brains for a decade
The Guardian and Observer (UK) - Sunday November 7, 2004


I loved the opening –


Bofinger, in the rue de la Bastille, is the oldest brasserie in Paris, the haunt of presidents and ministers, Chiracs and chevaliers. It is also my favourite place to dine in the whole world. Bofinger is a shrine to food, staffed by mustachioed waiters in black waistcoats and white aprons, waltzing around the various rooms bearing platters of fruits de mer, wobbling crème caramels, great tureens of bouillabaisse. Bofinger is noisy and vivid, thick with the stew of soupe à l'oignon, foie gras, steak frites, choucroute, butter sauces, andouillette, sticky confit de canard, towering coupes des glaces topped with turrets of crème Chantilly.


It is also one of the best places in the world to lose weight. According to established lore and several new books (the latest is French Women Don't Get Fat by Mirielle Guiliano), if you really want to kiss your ass goodbye, you should take a lesson from the French.


Despite a diet stuffed with cream, butter, cheese and meat, just 10 per cent of French adults are obese, compared with our 22 per cent, and America's colossal 33 per cent. The French live longer too, and have lower death rates from coronary heart disease - in spite of those artery-clogging feasts of cholesterol and saturated fat. This curious observation, dubbed 'the French paradox', has baffled scientists for more than a decade. And it leaves us diet-obsessed Brits smarting.


In Chic and Slim: How Those French Women Eat all that Rich Food and Still Stay Slim, Anne Barone seeks to unravel the puzzle. As it turns out, it's all about knickers. 'Never underestimate the power of a black lace garter belt,' she writes. 'Even French women's lingerie helps to keep them slim, [it's] a constant reminder to make choices that pay off in slimness. Their belief in this principle is demonstrated by the fact that there are almost as many lingerie shops in Paris as bakeries.' Vanity, it seems, is a very useful vice if you want to fight the flab.


Well there’s more to it than that, and the article goes on at great length.


Key items?


A recent survey conducted by the French government's Committee for Health Education (CFES) found that eating is still very closely linked to a national heritage of consuming good food for pleasure. In France, 76 per cent eat meals they have prepared at home; the favourite place to eat both lunch and dinner is in the home, with 75 per cent eating at the family table. In the UK, by contrast, we like to eat our meals (a) standing up, (b) in front of Coronation Street , (c) at a desk while catching up on emails or (d) by the side of the M40.


Whereas the French typically spend two hours over lunch, we bolt down our food in the time it would take them to butter a petit pain. Nutritionist Dr Francoise L'Hermite believes that the French secret is to sit down with friends or family for a meal, and to eat three times a day at regular intervals. She points out that the French don't eat in front of the television, and they eat slowly, enjoying both the food and the company. How very civilised.


'For France, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation,' says L'Hermite. 'From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, food is just fuel to give energy to your muscles. If you have no pleasure in it, you are breaking all the rules of eating.'


Dr Andrew Hill, senior lecturer in behavioural sciences at Leeds University, agrees. 'I suspect that the French paradox has something to do with our differing core attitudes to food and eating. French food is real food - prepared in the kitchen, with time taken to choose, buy and prepare meals. In other words, there's space for food in the daily routine.


Eating in France is a social activity.


And that is followed by much talk about such social activity taking time – and we who are not in France doesn’t seem to have any time.  Then there is pride in the finest ingredients, no making do with good enough.


Few of us who have holidayed in Provence or weekended in Paris could dispute the fact that the French tend to aim for quality over quantity. Almost every village in the country boasts a bustling market featuring local sausages, patties of farm-made chevre, figs and fennel in the appropriate season or truffles dug from a wood down the lane. It's not just a choice available to the moneyed middle classes, but somewhere for everyone, every day. There is a national pride in the nation's produce and, until very recently, a typically Gallic antipathy towards imports (which is why the English still pack Heinz Baked Beans, Marmite and PG Tips when they head off on their annual gite holiday in the Dordogne).


Okay.  Fine


And then there is portion control –


When they get those enviable produits du terroirs home, French people, it seems, naturally exercise strict portion control. In their study of why the French remain so much slimmer than Americans, the researchers from the University of Pennsylvania came to the remarkable conclusion that it was because the French ate less. 'Based on observation in Paris and Philadelphia,' they wrote, 'we document that the French portion sizes are smaller in comparable restaurants, in the sizes of individual portions in supermarkets, individual portions specified in cookbooks, and in the prominence of "all-you-can-eat" restaurants in dining guides.'


The figures - both physically and statistically - back this up. Mean portion size in Philadelphia was about 25 per cent greater than in Paris. Philadelphia's Chinese restaurants served 72 per cent more than the Parisian ones. A supermarket soft drink in the US was 52 per cent larger, a hotdog 63 per cent larger, a carton of yoghurt 82 per cent larger.


'A croissant in Paris is one ounce,' notes Chris Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, 'while in Pittsburgh it's two.' America is indeed the land of giant pastries. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer girth of a muffin I once bought at a coffee shop in New York - but, like all of the dead-eyed cows in the joint - I worked my way through it under the wayward assumption that it constituted a 'portion' and therefore ought to be finished. 'If food is moderately palatable,' says Paul Rozin, one of the psychologists on the Pennsylvania study, 'people tend to consume what is put in front of them, and generally consume more when offered more food.' Interestingly, hamsters do much the same thing.


As a consequence of all these mighty meals, the average calorie consumption in the United States weighs in at 3,642 a day, against 3,551 in France - a small difference, but one that can add up to a five-pound weight gain in six months.


Well, maybe that’s it.  And no one snacks.


The French, I suspect, wouldn't let a 'snack kit' near their poodle, let alone near their mouth. Doctor François Baudier of the CFES reports that 'the French, in contrast to Anglo-Saxons, hardly ever snack outside of meals'. One reason for this is that their fat-rich diet stimulates the production of cholecystokinin, a satiety signal which promotes an extended sense of satisfaction after eating even small amounts of high-fat foods. Brie-eaters stay fuller longer.


Curious.  But this may be the real key -


… In the last instance, though, it may well come down to attitude - that Chanel vanity, that snobbery, which might just save the day. As Anne Barone puts it: 'The French woman sees herself as a beautiful woman despite her physical flaws. She is worth the effort of eating well, taking care of herself. She deserves to be slim and healthy.' And she deserves that a whole lot more than she deserves a portion of pie.


Then we also get a long series of quote from various French women – some of which adds a new factor as one woman says “most French women smoke instead of eating.”


Oh. That.


My friend Louisa Chu of Movable Feast: Diary of an Itinerant Chef adds this from Paris -


I want some of those tandoori Doritos!  French junk food is terrible.


From Cordon Bleu on I've eaten unlimited amounts of butter and foie gras - the latter to the point now that I don't really like it. When I first starting working at the Plaza in pastry I'd sneak home stacks of gauffres - and eat them at will - slathered in Nutella. At Ducasse I’d usually have a breakfast of a mini pain au chocolat and mini pain au raisin - and coffee with real cream and sugar. Lunch - if I wasn't on the split shift and sleeping - would usually be bread, cheese, fruit and a pastry. Dinner - the employee hot special of the day - usually some kind of French classic like coq au vin or beef bourguignon - with a hot veg side - and a pastry. On some days I'd only have pastries for dinner. But on Fridays we usually special ordered the steak frites. And on Sundays I almost always ate a whole baguette by myself.


I've lost so much weight since I left LA - where I worked out every single day, watched what I ate, etc. - that I can no longer wear most of my old clothes.


Those occasional In-and-Out drive-throughs add up.


Indeed they do.  See their site  - of the almost cult-like fast food chain out here.


Roc Erickson of MetropoleParis adds this –


Bonjour Alan –


It's amazing how people are fascinated by eating in France. While the Guardian's piece was largely true, I think some exaggerations slipped in. For example:


As a consequence of all these mighty meals, the average calorie consumption in the United States weighs in at 3,642 a day, against 3,551 in France - a small difference, but one that can add up to a five pound weight gain in six months.


I don't think so.  'Average' is 90 little calories less than in the United States? My guess is that it is 1000 calories less might be closer to true. No snacks, three meals - in reality, probably no breakfast or next to nothing. Main meal is lunch and can be substantial, but portions are never in excess. Evenings at home are often simple - a soup - a mini starter, and some cheese and a fruit to finish off. Result - no big digestion going on all night.


The French sin is nibbling. This starts with babies who are given a 'gouter' when they yell.  'Gouters' are a major industry, packagewise, so they can be served in kindergarten, at home, on trips, on excursions. Supermarkets have many shelves devoted to various forms of packaged 'gouter,' whole aisles. The food conglomos constantly invent new ones, more full of sugar and air than what they replace.


Most French quit nibbling when they grow up - except for the freelance tasting that goes on while meals are being prepared, but this isn't serious. The French who don't stop nibbling do become overweight, and you see more and more of them here. Less than in America, but getting to be more.


The article didn't mention the magic creams sold in pharmacies. You rub them on the blubber and it evaporates. Maybe rubbing is exercise; more likely it is money that evaporates. I don't know how pharmacies sell the stuff with a straight face.


Good food in France is not cheap. Restaurants can serve fairly plain meat and vegetables for fair-value amounts, but when the ingredients get special the price soars. For this reason most people eat at home, simply, most of the time.


Anniversaries and fêtes are when the restraint lifts. Luckily these go on all around the calendar with the consequence that just about everything fancy is available all the time. For a fête like Christmas, which is a family affair, ordinary French will start saving in September. For Christmas there has to be good stuff on the table, all of it. People will be modest for months just to make Christmas a big feast, the top of the year.


Try and imagine the effect on your waistlines if you'd been 'in training' for Thanksgiving. Say you had fish for lunch instead of Double Whoppers for the last two months - fish, with some cheese and a little cognac with a tiny espresso and a fragrant non-filtered cigarette, and then a kilometer walk back to the office. You might have to walk fast if you are here - the bosses are cutting down the lunch two-hour. They - ha ha - want us to make do with a sandwich. It won't work as long as they're so tight with the good mayo.


Another reason that the French, in Paris at any rate, as so slim is that there isn't enough parking. Circling the block looking for a free space, legal or illegal, is stressful and may require a long walk-back. It's a good thing nobody worries much about being on time, except for meals. They are the high points of the day.


-          burp, ric


Ah!  The problem is parking!


I liked the garter belt explanation better.


But the whole business all seems to be about one’s attitude toward life, non?


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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Paris readers add nine hours....