Choosing the right diet for yourself can be as difficult as choosing the right pair of jeans to fit your body. There are so many choices on the market leading us to believe each one is the panacea to all our pounds. Attention! Meet Charlotte Debeugny, a no-nonsense nutritionist in Paris who believes sensible and good eating habits are the best way to feel good about yourself. She runs a practice, has penned two nutritional books, in French no less, is a mother of three, and is now working on a Masters degree in her spare time. From her home outside of Paris, Charlotte talks about her two passions: food and family.
Charlotte, how is it that Parisians manage to stay so slim eating all the fabulous French food, but we expats put on pounds with every new French dégustation?
Great question, and the subject of a number of books! Paris possibly has its own little “slim bubble”; and it’s not necessarily the same throughout France. In terms of healthy eating, traditional eating habits such as not snacking and avoiding sweetened drinks have contributed to France having one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe. Remember, too, that the French traditionally have a light evening meal of soup or salad while with the expats it’s often the other way round. Munching our way through croissants, followed by a three-course lunch, and then another heavy meal in the evening does not help our waistlines. And then, of course, there’s the wine. Alcohol in moderation is difficult for many expats!
What made you decide to become a nutritionist in Paris after working as a chartered accountant for many years at different financial institutions in both London and New York?
I’ve always loved cooking and been fascinated by the link with diet and health. After the birth of my third child, it just felt like it was the right time to change. Much as I loved the finance world, I knew I was struggling to balance long working hours and lots of business travel with my family life. So, I went back to university as a (very!) mature student.
Now we all know there are lots of diets out there to choose from. What do you advocate to lose weight?
Honestly, the best diet is the one which works for you. Ideally it should not feel like a diet, more like a lifestyle choice. It needs to be satisfying, tasty and varied. A lower carb diet tends to help people lose weight more quickly initially. I also think we should avoid snacking – eating little and often does not work for most people. And, there’s interesting research on intermittent fasting – which is basically having longer periods of time without eating, or eating very little for a certain period of time, such as the 5/2 diet. The research is interesting because there’s also a health benefit to this approach and a real “anti-aging” function. Running our bodies on empty seems to help our bodies function more effectively.
Dieting often feels like punishment – depraving ourselves of eating what we love or forcing ourselves to indulge less. When is dieting necessary?
That’s exactly why most diets don’t work and the statistics are depressing. Less than 20% of people manage to keep the weight off following a diet. Being slightly overweight or “curvaceous” (!) does not tend to increase the risk of chronic disease. However, a body mass index (BMI) which is greater than 30 does put you more at risk of health issues as you age. So, in answer to your question, dieting is necessary when your weight is affecting or will affect your health.
We hear so much about healthy living, organic food, slow cooking and non-gluten diets. Do you think these are trends? Or should we try to adopt these ways to improve our guts and overall being?
Healthy eating and any form of cooking should be a permanent lifestyle choice rather than a trend! Organic food is certainly lower in pesticides and more environmentally-friendly, but if it is not possible to buy organic, eating any fruits and vegetables has a positive impact on our health.
Non-gluten diets are certainly necessary for a small percentage of the population suffering from celiac disease, wheat allergies and severe sensitivity. However, you certainly should not feel you have to avoid gluten if you not fall into one of those three categories. Whole grains are good for both your gut and overall health, so the key message is to consume whole grains rather than processed grains.
You’ve written extensively about gluten. How is it that people are only discovering now they are allergic to certain grains and can’t eat bread, pasta or pastry?
Hmm… There’s definitely a bit of “nocebo” effect going on – people unnecessarily avoiding gluten because they think it is ‘bad’ for them. Again, some people have to avoid gluten but this is truly only a small percentage. Gluten has also been given very bad press recently, a bit like eggs in the 90s. There is no research which conclusively proves that gluten is “dangerous” for the majority of the population, despite the sensationalized books and articles you may have seen!
As an English woman, you’ve successfully crossed the Channel, have written three nutritional books in French, and have two new books coming out this year. Are nutritional habits universal or cultural?
Healthy eating habits – such as consuming vegetables and fresh fruit, whole grains, healthy fats and quality sources of protein while limiting processed foods where possible – are universal. Our cultures play a role in how these recommendations are applied.
Do women have unrealistic expectations about losing weight?
I think women feel the pressure to manage with a lot of unrealistic expectations! I do believe that we should accept we come in all different shapes and sizes which makes us only more unique, beautiful and interesting. We should be aiming for a healthy weight, not an unrealistic one which is only going to set us up for failure and make us feel miserable.
Is it true you are also now working on a master’s degree? How do you juggle all your activities and responsibilities?
Yes it is true; and yes I am probably insane! I’m a whisker away from having all the eggs I am juggling crash messily around my ears. I’m pursuing a master’s in Food, Nutrition and Public Health to give me more “kudos”. It’s tough working in a different country, and I felt having a master’s would help me to keep my options open regarding work projects. For example, my nutrition degree taught me about nutrition, nutrients and how they influence chronic disease. The master’s is teaching me about food production, food reformulation, EU law relating to food safety, and the psychology around public health interventions regarding behaviour change – which gives me a fantastic “tool box” when consulting for food companies.
As to how I do it: I wanted to do it, which is probably the big difference. And I took it on knowing that I would be spending the next three years working most weekends. Gulp! I also have a supportive husband and laid back children who put up with my dramatics on a Sunday night when I wander through the house shrieking: “Woe is me, and I’m never going to finish the assignment.” My husband simply pours me a large glass of wine and sends me back into my office!
Charlotte, what are you cooking at home for your family? Will you share what breakfast, lunch and dinner look like in your household?
With pleasure. This morning I made vegan apricot muffins, as I am experimenting with some recipes for a new book. Lunch today is a family staple: roast salmon with lentils; and supper is generally a soup and salad. I’ve definitely become more French and tend to eat my main meal at lunchtime when possible.
I love cooking – it truly is my form of meditation. An easy way to try and get children eating “5-a-day” is serving one to two fruits and vegetables at every meal. I also as a general rule limit desserts and cakes to one or two a week. So dessert is normally fruit, cheese, or yoghurt… and a square of dark chocolate with my expresso!