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How French Women Really Eat (Hint: With Joy)

In honor of Bastille Day, Yahoo Style and Yahoo Beauty are examining what it means to be French — the myths, fantasies, and realities that all help define that certain je ne sais quoi. What’s vrai, what’s faux, and what’s a total faux pas? Read on.

So you may or may not be aware that the notion that “French women don’t get fat” — as perpetuated by French culture maven Mireille Guiliano in her 2005 best-selling book of that name — is not precisely true. But still, alongside our idealized image of a svelte Parisian woman perched at a café and delicately devouring a croissant with seemingly no ill effects, the “French paradox” does persist. That’s the cleverly coined mystery of France’s relatively low rate of cardiovascular disease, despite its lust for high-fat foods.

Theories that try to explain this range from the heart-healthy benefits of a love of red wine and of cheese — which is consumed constantly in France and could possibly play a role in lowering cholesterol, according to one recent study.

Beyond the scientific evidence, the gulf between French and American eating habits separate two vastly different cultures and mindsets, and this can translate into hugely opposing experiences with food — whether weight is gained or not.

“Food has kind of become the enemy in the U.S. — something to be afraid of, whether because what’s on your plate could make you fat, or give you hives,” Susan Herrmann Loomis, tells Yahoo Beauty. An American in Paris and expert on French food, she is the author of cookbooks that include In a French Kitchen. “And the French, overall, have a great attitude about food. They love it. The average person just eats their food.”

In France (where Loomis is now a citizen and has lived for 23 years), she explains, “Overall, there’s a social and traditional link to food. You can’t really separate a French person from food — they either grew up on a farm or spent time on a farm while growing up, and even if they grew up in Paris, there is this strong connection.”

But their healthy, happy, lusty approach to eating does not mean indulgence without boundaries. “What the French really don’t do is eat between meals,” she says. “It’s almost like an iron-clad rule.” And the tendencies to eat seasonally, to eschew processed junk over fresh whole foods, and to linger over meal times rather than eat and run all contribute to the unique culture there.

Items typically served at French meals, Loomis notes, include cheese (“It’s at every meal — you cannot get away without serving cheese at the end of a meal,” she says), fish, crème fraîche (“It’s basically used as seasoning…”), butter, and alcohol (typically wine). Lettuce gets munched on daily, as it’s standard to nibble on an after-meal salad, and other staples vary seasonally — with tomato salad reigning at the moment, Loomis says.

Dominick Pepe, the classically trained French chef at New York City’s Dominique Bistro, concurs with Loomis’s take on French eating habits. “As Americans, we tend to do everything in excess,” he tells Yahoo Beauty, adding that while French folks might love high-fat delicacies, “They don’t eat these items as often as you’d think. Also, they might indulge, but it’s in small portions.”

At his restaurant, for example, Pepe serves fat-filled foie gras, but in 2- or 3-ounce portions. “It’s not a 32-ounce steak,” he says, also noting the favoring of whole, high-quality foods. “So yes, duck, but the duck would be wild-caught. Cheese is from a local cheese monger,” he says. “A lot of our meat wouldn’t even be accepted in Europe.” Nor would our tendency to blow through several courses at breakneck speed. “It’s standard to have three- to four-hour meals [in France], which is better for digestion. Americans gorge and leave, and can be in and out the door [of a restaurant] in 30 minutes.”

Additionally, here in the States, a whole host of emotional issues make mealtimes stressful, according to Guiliano. “As I and others see it, women in America (as well as those in many other developed countries in today’s global economy) increasingly face career pressures, personal stress, and often just have too much to do in too little time. Food is often perceived as a quick fix that helps deal with daily problems — or rather, allows forgetting them for a while,” the French Women Don’t Get Fat author once wrote. “The culture of excess and instant gratification, constantly fueled by a relentless stream of often deceptive ads, makes it easier than ever to reach for industrially produced, cheap food that is available in mega-portions, and is reliant on a high content of fat, sugar, and salt for taste.”

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That unhealthy cycle, she continued, “creates an environment conducive to habitually extreme behaviors, such as overeating followed by bouts of guilt and, finally, remorse in the form of some sort of ‘miracle’ diet which usually promises a lot, delivers very little or fails completely in the long run. Yet, in the vein of ‘No pain, no gain,’ a false sense of achievement through hard work and deprivation reinforces the cycle. Thus, a vicious circle is born, and staying slim becomes a constant battle, impossible to win.”

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