The Culinary Secrets of Svelte Parisians

Misa Shikuma


French women don’t get fat. It’s a phrase forever immortalized thanks to Mireille Guiliano’s popular 2004 “non-diet” book, but as a stereotype I have to admit it’s surprisingly accurate. This is not to say that all Parisians look like size zero fashion models, but rather that in the months since moving here, the only severely overweight people I’ve seen are all tourists. Given that the reputation of the national cuisine is built upon buttery pastries and creamy sauces, the idea of perpetually svelte citizens presents a curious dichotomy. But a closer look at French culture reveals a combination of principles and common sense that optimize both physical health and overall well-being, critical elements that the diet-related disease-ridden and fat-shaming society of America could learn from.


Comparing the inventories of grocery stores in the two countries suggests that there is a fundamental difference in what is considered to be food. American manufacturers appear to enjoy one-upping each other by coming out with lower calorie, zero fat versions of their products, to the point where the ingredients lists read more like chemistry experiments than anything that might actually be edible. Go to France, and everything you see on the shelves is real. Better yet, head to your neighborhood’s open-air market and buy everything directly from the farmers, butchers, bakers and cheese-makers.


But the contrast extends further than the ingredients. Yes, French cuisine is centered on what is fresh and seasonal, but meals themselves are taken much differently. While in America it’s all about convenience (I myself have eaten many meals in the driver’s seat of my car while en route to my next destination), in France meals – and particularly dinner - are often ritualized multi-course affairs that can take up to several hours. The portions are smaller and presentation is paramount, forcing you to really savor the experience. And while some of my French friends diet (nothing extreme like South Beach or Paleo, but rather they simply wish to eat more nutritiously), overall there seems to be a greater sense of body acceptance.


It goes without saying that the media environment of America is one of fear, negativity and body disparagement. Rather than regarding eating as a pleasurable experience, as it is in France, we are made to feel guilty for indulging in a good meal. As a woman in her early 20s with many friends of a similar demographic profile, it’s only a matter of time after a shared meal ends that someone will lean back and say, “Oh my god, I can’t believe how much I just ate.” (Or the implicit version, “I’m going to work out so hard tomorrow”). Never mind the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with satiating one’s hunger, but inevitably everyone else will murmur in agreement as though we have all shared in some great conspiratorial wrongdoing.


As females Western society expects us to adhere to certain arbitrary expectations, like thinness as the standard of beauty. Thinness, by extension, is associated with a lack – the perceived calorie deficit between what is consumed through food and burned off through activity. And although science dictates that weight loss is actually much more complex, it is exactly this simplified logic that drives fad diets and eating disorders. We convince ourselves that certain foods are “bad,” and do our best to cut them out of our diets completely.


But restriction is never sustainable over the long term; it’s a basic psychological principle. The more you deny yourself something – the pain chocolat sitting in the window of the pâtisserie you pass by each morning, for example – the more appealing it becomes. But by allowing yourself to have one once in a while, you break the temptation to binge and reduce future cravings.


On the topic of dieting and restriction, it seems worthy of note that vegetarianism is much less common in France than in the United States. And while this probably doesn’t apply to the majority of vegetarians, I know from personal experience that restrictive plant-based diets can be a form of disordered eating made palatable to friends and family thanks to advocacy groups like PETA and popular anti-industrial agriculture propaganda like Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation


Maybe as Americans we’re just hard-wired to believe that with enough willpower we can change anything – even override the genetics that are largely responsible for determining our size and shape. We’d like to think that there is some secret formula, a regimen that holds the secret to losing weight, which explains the reasoning behind many of the negative reviews for Guiliano’s book. Rather than hard and fast diet rules, the author’s philosophy is more about overall portion control and balancing a rich breakfast with a light lunch.


Life is too short to spend our waking hours counting calories, so by easing up and learning to savor and appreciate the food we consume maybe, just maybe, we can start to live a little.


Author Bio:

Misa Shikuma is a contributing writer and photographer at Highbrow Magazine. She lives in Paris.

Photos: Moyan Brenn, Xiaozhuli, Malias (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Moyan Brenn, Flickr
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