I always approach the “French Paradox” with skepticism, just because I’m a skeptic by nature. Sure, there are cultural customs and mores that can provide protection against obesity – shunning the idea of eating outside of the table (no walking or driving while eating), not having to have food at every event or occasion (like business meetings) – but to the point where we’re trying to proclaim “wine and cheese will keep you from gaining weight!?” To me, that’s walking into “fail territory.”
I wanted to react sooner but was away for a while. Anyway, as a French person, here’s my two cents.
I’m afraid I read the news a few days ago so I don’t remember exactly all that was being said, I’d like to point out, though, that it made me both cringe and laugh at the same time. I remember reading the comments from the French doctor, utterly bewildered, to the point where I started wondering if this guy and I know, and live in, the same country.
Let me get this clear: yes, we do have regular eating patterns, or at least fairly regular. Yes, I believe junk food is (or maybe was?) less available, and, for instance, when I was a child (I’m now 29), soft drinks were unheard of on the table, the choice drink for children being water (this may have changed with the younger generations, though).
On the other hand, I grew up with McDonald (though my brother and I were fortunate enough to have parents who never took us there. Consequently, my brother never ate there and I went only twice in my teens) and pasta, rice and instant mash potato meals with a slice of ham where all the rage around my friends as their parents didn’t bother to cook most of the time (again, we were fortunate that my mother loved to).
So healthy “gourmet” meals…? Sorry, but once again, no. The majority of French people never see a vegetable in their normal eating day (fruit and veggies are deemed as too pricey, but as people prefer buying and eating crap, no wonder…), unless it is the tomato paste or sauce they pour on their pasta/ pasta usually laden with cream or grated cheese too. Same for rice.
Meat is ever present (otherwise it’s not a meal…).
The French may be proud of their gourmet, well-balanced meals but I wonder who actually get those. Well I definitely understand not getting the gourmet, but the well-balanced? Unless you count eating tons of refined carbs, meat and dairy, and as little fruit or veggies as possible, as well-balanced, well…
The upper middle class is perhaps getting those well-balanced dream meals this doctor is talking about, but that only shows that he is totally disconnected from reality.
As for lunch break lasting for 2 hours, who is kidding who? Perhaps some are still getting those, but believe me, that’s not the majority. For most it’s 1 hour or even just 20 mn, and this time is allotted to finding, purchasing and eating a sandwich (white-flour baguette with a filling of ham and butter being the national favorite, it seems) in most cases (or going to the restaurant in some cases, that’s true too).
I don’ know where the idealistic images of young children having veggies and leg of lamb for lunch is coming from either but don’t get me started on it. I ate for 15 years in a cafeteria and I still shudder at the thought. Most of the time, the food is inedible, so bad it is cooked. I concede this may have changed, but certainly not to the point described in the original article/ study. Or, once again, perhaps the most privileged children are getting this kind of meals but it is certainly not widespread. I’d like also to add that giving a fancy name to a meal doesn’t’ make it tasty.
Lastly, someone commented on French bakeries and farmers’ markets.
Our bakeries are full of refined carbs. Our breads are mostly made from white flour, sourdough wholemeal bread (the only kind of healthy bread) being a thing of the long dead past for most of us (you can still get your hands on some, but as any quality food these days, it’s pricey and not everyone can afford it). I suggest some do research on “viennoiseries”, “pain au chocolat”, “croissant”, “pain aux raisins” and other kinds of pastries, to find out what our bakeries are full of.
As for the farmers’ markets, we may have more than in the USA, I don’t know, but for the most part, they are overrated. Especially since the quality of the produce has been on a downward slope these last 10 years. And let’s not forget that most people get their food from the supermarket anyway (where they buy tons of crappy food such as frozen meals, cold-cuts, ready-made pudding full of dairy, etc).
Now to the last point, why French are still slimmer. Well, I won’t deny that our food is still of better quality than in the rest of the world (lots of regulation does seem to help, after all); our eating habits still hold and probably help too, our portions are smaller too, from what I’ve heard BUT some things have been grossly overlooked in everything you may have read about French people. I don’ really know about the men but French women tend to be professional dieters. There’s tremendous pressure out there for us to be slim, no matter what and believe me, most of the time, it works, but at what cost? (hint: eating disorders , body issues and depression among other things)
The French, overall, may be the slimmest but they are not the happiest. We are the leading nation when it comes to drug intake per capita, and these drug include a not-so-healthy dose of antidepressant.
Sorry for this very long post; I must admit that I was incensed when I read about this on the web as, in my opinion, most of what is described as the French way of life (or former way of life, it seems) is outward lies and is akin to the airbrushed pictures you see everywhere: presenting as real and reachable something with isn’t and can’t be reached for most of us.
So, sorry again for ranting on your blog, Erika, but I really thought truth had to be told.
Also, in all fairness, I would like to say that I’m a slightly overweight vegan French woman who “flees” her country whenever she can, so perhaps I’m a little biased (and not in their favour) when it comes to speaking of my fellow citizens.
If anything, Axelle’s comment reminds me that no country is a monolith; no culture is monolithic, either. Just like all Americans don’t ascribe to the fast-food-thirteen-times-a-week lifestyle we see in the news all the time, all of France isn’t sitting around eating coq au vin and drinking red wine at every meal… and while we marvel at another culture’s ability to “escape” what we’ve succumbed to, we should also remember that we don’t benefit from romanticizing it.
Seriously… serving leg of lamb at a day care? Even I gave that the side eye of eternity.