If you think living in France consists of croissants for breakfast, a three-course lunch with a glass of wine and then steak frites, more wine, and mousse au chocolat for dinner… day after day… sorry to burst your bubble. For those of us who live here, we know that these foods are certainly present and enjoyed on occasion, but French traditions and customs are usually much more balanced than this depiction of “la vie en rose.”
In fact, despite some Parisienne habits that don’t support health, much of the French lifestyle is actually very healthy. The composition of plates, context of meals, and relationship with food blows away many other cultures in terms of achieving balance.
So, what French habits DO support health and well-being?
Just how do the French eat?
Before even getting to what is on the plate, it is first essential to look at HOW the French eat. Though long, lingering meals can seem like a dramatization, most people do take time to sit and eat a proper and relaxed meal. An entire hour is taken for weekday lunch by even the busiest French workers, and it is considered a sacred moment that is protected during the day.
Taking time to sit and eat in a relaxed environment without multitasking improves digestion and absorption of nutrients, allows for increased satisfaction after a meal because it was mindfully enjoyed, and reduces overeating because hunger and satisfaction signals can be properly acknowledged.
Along with taking the time to eat, many eating experiences in France are social. Though not a rule, when alcohol is consumed it is frequently in the company of others. Meals are eaten with family, coworkers, or friends. Food is a social experience, and sharing meals is a powerful way to connect with others. Though lunching with friends doesn’t change the vitamins or minerals on your plate, eating in social settings brings a whole different type of nourishment that shouldn’t be discounted. Eating with others allows us to feel connected, which is a precursor to being able to truly have a healthy relationship with food.
Prepare an appetizing, healthy plate
When it comes to what is actually being eaten, the French get it right from the start. In a traditional three-course “entrée – plat – dessert” formula, the starter is often based on vegetables or seafood. Starting a meal with a vegetable-heavy dish in particular is an excellent way to ensure the meal contains nourishing nutrients and filling fiber, reduces the overall caloric load of a meal, and supports balanced blood sugar. Seafood starters can also provide excellent health benefits, as they are often high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and provide a protein boost right from the start, which keeps hunger at bay until the next meal.
Overall, the French plate (or plates in the case of multiple courses) tends to be balanced and proportioned so as to not overeat. There is almost always a protein (whether animal or plant-based) and vegetable along with some type of carbohydrate or starch source (which is important for energy and satiation), and generally plenty of fat like cheese or a butter-enriched sauce (though in France the fats aren’t always the healthy variety, fat does feel satisfying to eat). The end result is feeling properly nourished after a meal, without feeling the need to seek other food or constant snacks to fill a void.
Sweet things are not forbidden
Though not always necessary after a satisfying meal, the French generally save room for dessert. They understand that the more we try to resist or forbid certain foods, the more we want them. They counter this by including dessert regularly, even daily. When it is allowed, there is no need to obsess over something sweet, and there is certainly no need to overdo it by binging (while telling yourself you will start your diet again tomorrow).
It’s simple: when certain foods are allowed, you remove the perception of them being of higher value or being more desirable, and they no longer have power over you. You have the power to decide when you want certain foods, and also when you don’t, knowing both of these options are perfectly healthy. It doesn’t hurt that many French desserts are light (yogurt, fruit purée with granola or crumbled cookies, fromage blanc and fruit coulis…), but this is not what makes them permissible. All foods can fit in a healthy and balanced diet, and the French seem to understand this better than many cultures.
Keep it moving
Outside of mealtimes, Parisian culture (and possibly French culture in general) encourages regular gentle movement. Walking and biking are part of daily routine for most people. Building pleasurable movement into daily habits ensures it always fits into the schedule. Low and moderate intensity exercise has been shown to foster a balanced microbiome (the bacteria in the digestive system that have been linked to health), improve sleep, reduce stress, decrease risk of many chronic diseases and support longevity. While biking and walking don’t cover all the bases when it comes to exercise (strength training, stretching, and high intensity bursts bring their own benefits), they certainly make for an excellent foundation.
Eating can be a pleasure even when you are trying to boost your wellness. So, let’s take some lessons from the French and try to incorporate these six healthy habits to feel good:
- Take time to eat while sitting, without distraction, to feel more satisfied and improve digestion.
- Enjoy food and drink in company to feel more globally nourished.
- Begin your meal with a vegetable starter.
- Balance your plate for improved nutrition and satisfaction by incorporating protein, produce, some type of carbohydrate or starch, and some healthy fats.
- Enjoy dessert regularly, and stay away from all-or-nothing approaches to foods. The more we forbid and restrict, the less healthy our overall relationship is with food.
- Incorporate movement into your routines by walking for errands, biking for transportation, or building regular walking breaks into your day.
Though French culture isn’t the apex of health, the French certainly do lead the way when it comes to finding balance, prioritizing nourishment, and supporting a healthy relationship with food.