Home Debunking The Myths On The French Paradox: “Stop Lying About How The French Live!”

On The French Paradox: “Stop Lying About How The French Live!”

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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.”

On my most recent post regarding “The French,” I got this amazingly thorough comment from Axelle, which kinda rocked my socks:

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.

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23 comments

Bianca August 23, 2011 - 12:02 PM

I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with her comment and POV and offer another native French perspective. I am not native French but my husband is and I’ve lived there twice for month long periods.

I don’t know what the commentor’s background is but my husband’s family were poor immigrants and they lived in a poor immigrant neighborhood. As such they could not afford the processed foods she mentions people eating. And neither could her immigrant neighbors, who were mainly African and Arab. So they cooked their traditinal foods and started to assimilate French cuisine into their diets and again that didn’t mean rice a roni.

Did my husband eat French pastry and bread? Of course it was the most calories for cheap he could get his hands on. Unlike here their bread is white flour but it’s important NOT to minimize the effect of not eating food with hydrogenated oils and margarine. Their stuff is made with butter and eggs and flour and even at a mediocre bakery as an American I could taste the difference.

Soda is still not widely consumed, at least not as of a couple years ago during our last trip. And I never saw a 24 pack of pepsi.

They have fast food yes and some poor people might eat there but if you see a crowd in McDonalds its primarily to mooch off of their free wifi.

And then there is the exercise factor. Paris is not a city drivers it’s a city of walkers bikers and metro commuters and that means a LOT of walking. The metro stops may be every couple blocks but escalators are in short supply which means ample stair climbing and hoofing it to your destination. Paris should not be called the city of lights it should be called the city of stairs.

As nearly half of Paris alone is not native Caucasian French but rather immigrant, their lifestyle should be counted among the “French” diet as well.

And as a fat American I can personally vouch that if your diet consists of little to no processed foods, cheap veggies, starch and even pastry and what meat you can afford, even if it’s sausage or salami you will still be more fit and thinner than many Americans. We saw smoking grannies scaling hills leading to Montemarte while dragging a heavy laundry basket. Which is why I, as a sedentary (as sedentary as you can be with toddlers) American lose in excess of 20 lbs every time I visit and I am NOT avoiding the bread meat butter or wine.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 23, 2011 - 12:14 PM

See, this only – to me, at least – furthers my thinking about romanticizing one culture’s lifestyle, especially as outsiders. We do super crazy strange stuff like forgetting that everyone’s story won’t be the same, especially when lumping together “those with means” and “those without.”

Breian August 24, 2011 - 7:25 PM

Everyone one is correct but I still agree with the commentor. I have lived in several countries around the world and like Bianca my first few months I lose about 20lbs as well but it’s not only because the food is healthier it’s because it is a completely different culture. In South Korea I lost about 45lbs from the food and simply walking every where for a year. But lets be honest, when was the last time you came home (America) and decided to walk everywhere? In Spain I ate some of the most fatty foods and didn’t gain a pound. I walked every where. Yes I must admit other countries sometimes don’t use the steroids and preservatives that we use in the states. I will say the same for my experience in France. In Morocco I lost about 15lbs. Only because my body was adjusting to lving in a different place and again all the walking. However in each place slowly I would begin to put on weight. The reality was there food wasn’t that healthy. Now I will say thaere is a big difference in portion size, other than their national dish of cous cous, as well as paella in Spain. With exception to South Korea (they really do eat healthier and it rubbed off on me), I realised that the food offered wasn’t healthier. I realized I ate more bread abroad than I did at home. And eventually ate more and gained more than I would in the States. I say all this to state that yes there are benefits to trying other foods from different cultures. We should even take lessons in healthier eating and living from other countries. But in no way do I believe these cultures are significantly healthier. Some countries smoke more (Spain & France), if it’s not smoking then another countrie drinks more (Korea). There are even other coultures that still practice fattening (Mauritania, Morocco, and Nigeria). I look at all these factors when stating whether another culture is healthier. We all need to take pointers from each other. The biggest lesson I brought home is portion size and minimum use of steroids and preservatives in my food.

Roxanne August 24, 2011 - 12:14 PM

I would have to agree with Bianca. As a native French, who has been living in the US for 10 years, I respectfully disagree with Axelle.

The thing is people’s experiences are different for sure, however being able to “broadly” compare two cultures does help. While more and more French kids are being exposed to fast food and processed foods… Essentially, the portions are still a whole lot smaller, and everybody as a whole is more active… which in turns might contribute to the famed “French Paradox”…

And also while it seems like French women are chronic dieters, weight issues are not a public subject of conversations…even between friends. It’s a private matter… not to be discussed in public.

Again, it boils down to personal experiences. Around me, at home, I see a lot less people struggling with weight than I do here…

AngelaR July 30, 2014 - 6:35 PM

I think Americans are envious of the French which is what this article stems from. Envy. They are different because 1) they have a much longer history than the States 2)They were not founded by Puritans.
Do we over indulge? Of course we do. When you were brought up with the notion that everything is denied to you, when you grow up, you over indulge which is why we have such problems with alcohol in this country.
Nothing said about the french as far a I can tell has been a lie. It’s only things most Americans are sick of hearing.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 1, 2014 - 1:00 AM

I’ve got to be honest – the idea of one country’s citizens being jealous of another country’s citizens, especially when dealing with countries that aren’t third-world, sounds ludicrous. The idea that Americans care who France was founded by or the age of the country implies that Americans have too much time on their hands.

We don’t. At least, not so much that we’re mentally sparring with foreign countries.

Relax on that inferiority complex, though.

alicia August 23, 2011 - 12:09 PM

yes yes yes, this makes all the sense in the world to me. i was always skeptical of this as well, when people pointed towards all the slim, fashionable parisian women and wondered “how do they look like that with all their butter and wine and cream sauce???” i always assumed that, just like in many major cities (such as london), constant dieting and pressure to maintain a certain look are the norm.

alicia August 23, 2011 - 12:14 PM

however, being around many european exchange students during my time at university, i noticed that many of them stuck to a 3-meal-a-day kind of lifestyle. one of these students was my roommate for a year, so i saw firsthand that she woke up in the morning and had breakfast before class, had lunch mid-day, and dinner at night. rarely snacked between meals, though maybe something small at night if she was up late studying. and i think that is a cultural thing…as opposed to american culture, which encourages eating constantly throughout the day.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 23, 2011 - 12:19 PM

“i think that is a cultural thing…as opposed to american culture, which encourages eating constantly throughout the day.”

…but where does this come from? This didn’t just come out of the sky.

Mind you, I have my theories, but I’m interested in what others think about this.

Gabrielle August 23, 2011 - 3:29 PM

I like Bianca have to respectfully disagree. I am french I live in Paris the city where everything is too damn expansive. Yet to say that veggies and fruits are not affordable is somewhat a false statement. You can find frozen veggie ( 1kilo) for less than 1 euro if it is not cheap then tell me what it is.

Im really sorry but like the author of the comment states it also depends of your background. Immigrants mainly from africa, magreb come with they food habit meaning eating couscous with 1kilo of oil, they have sweet if you eat just one it will rot your teeth in a second lol just to say that it is very greasy and sweet kind of food.

So of course it is not healthy. My parents are from the french island Guadeloupe and their eating habits being from the islands it was very greasy but when they came to france and started eating at the cafeteria it changed.

I was raised with veggies, water and balanced meal. But I was always heavier than my counterpart despite the fact that my mum cooked healthy meals, that I was doing sports and all.

At school same story healthy meals and it is even more true today that a lot of schools now serve balanced organic meal to the kids.

It is true that many french people do drink 1 glass of wine and eat cheese at least in one meal.

Now about fast food, the fast food we have here are usually from a foreign country such as Mcdonalds, or the kebab ( arabic food loaded with oil) but if you go to a french fast food they serve you with veggies, fruits. Let’s also point out that France did diversify the fruits and salads menus in their Mcdonalds. The bread for the burger is french and not made of enriched flour. Mcdonalds also propose a wheat version of the big mac.

The girl mentionned the sandwich that we eat for lunch but like she said it is one sandwich with lettuce tomato, cheese, chicken no fries. It is still healthier than a big mac menu.

But I think the main difference with America is that:

1st we do walk more and exercise more.
2nd portion control, french people on the overall do eat less ( now if you talking about people who live in france but were not raised there such as immigrants it is another story)
3rd french usually have 3 meals a day and a snack.
3rd even though we have bakeries it is made with quality ingredients but most of all those ingredients are not enriched.

I remember when I came to america I tried to keep up with my diet habits but honestly 200grams of veggies for 3 bucks is what I call not affordable especially for a student, when you have a meal for less than 4 bucks at Mcdonalds. Now I wanted to eat rice simple rice and I was confused by the label on it saying “enriched” I was wondering enriched in what and why? it is rice it is already filling. I rapidly put on weight but just eating normally because the quality of food is let’s be real and honest not the same.

Stacy August 23, 2011 - 7:38 PM

I decided to de-lurk to toss in my two cents, and this is purely from what I experienced living in Fontainebleau.

‘Dieting’: The children that I saw (I will admit I worked with children from wealthy families–I was a private English tutor) had strict eating rules. Or at least more rules than I’ve experienced here in the US.
For example, the little girls that I spent the most time with were only allowed to eat cheese once per day, typically with lunch or dinner (and their mother would ask if they had cheese with lunch before giving them any), the little boy said that he was only allowed fast food once per month, and all of the children said that they had breakfast, lunch, one snack afterschool snack, and dinner. That’s it. But all of these children were also required to play a sport and/or dance.
As for the women, however, it was a different story! The women that I spoke with said that they’d rather not eat than eat fake processed foods. And that’s what most of the sedentary women did…not eat, that is. The ones who lived outside the city (which meant a lot of driving instead of walking places) would eat full meals on the weekends and/or when they had company, and, during the week, only eat boudain noir because otherwise they’d gain weight. However the women who lived in the city would eat more because they could walk everywhere. Everyday the majority of the kids would be walked to and from school and everyone always took the stairs! I don’t think I ever saw an escalator and there definitely wasn’t any space for an elevator!

Overall, I think the idea behind how they view eating and exercise is good (as in balance your caloric intake versus how much you burn daily), but I would sometimes cringe when a child (mainly the little girls) would say that they were hungry and the mom would reply: “You can’t have any more bread, you’ll get fat. Drink some water.”
I felt fat vs skinny was more important than healthy vs not.

Danielle August 24, 2011 - 11:42 AM

This post had me thinking. Great points by everyone.
I am originally from the Caribbean (Trinidad), and mainly everyone there is slender. I remember thinking I was huge at 140 lbs (and at 5 ft 7in) because everyone else was like 15 lbs less but still curved in the right places. (Sigh! If I can just go back and shake my younger self!)

Anyways, our Trini food tastes ammaaaazing, but it’s honestly not good for you. Lots of simple starches, and people are what we call ‘meat’ mouth.

With that said, the majority of people walk everywhere. Even if you have to go to get public transport it’s a walk, and even if you have a car, after you park you’re walking to where you’re going and you’re walking around. It’s a lifestyle of fetes, going to the beach and DOING things you know.

In my high school, we had buildings as high as 5 stories. Guess what?- no elevators! Took those stairs every dern day when I was in that Form and it was no biggie.

Anyways the point of my post is that sometimes there are so many little pieces to the bigger puzzle.

Side note: It seems like though that in the US we are constantly looking to the Next Big Thing. The Secret that will unlock the key to eating what we want while remaining thin and healthy. When we look to a culture (whether French, Japanese, vegetarians) I think it’s really important to look at them from a whole- not just take one factoid and run with it you know.

Oriane August 26, 2011 - 3:51 AM

Uh, another native French here, and I have no idea what Axelle is talking about. I come from a rural area in the South of France, and my life fits in with the stereotypes of French living; non-processed foods, generally balanced meals, organic if possible, bought from our neighbours half the time on the farmer’s market, and in Provence at least every city has a farmer’s market, at least once a week, often twice. And reasonable portions – “normal” for me at least, I visited the US when I was fifteen and was shocked at the amount of food I was supposed to ingest in one sitting – and yes, our cities are usually made for walking, and I didn’t even live in one until I was seventeen and went to university. What did I eat then? Mostly vegetables, first because that’s how I was raised, and second because they’re cheap. Meat is expensive in France; processed foods cost a ton. So I’m really confused by her comment, I must say

Dleet September 4, 2011 - 12:30 AM

I’m American, but I’ve worked in a French summer day care, in a suburb, so, definitely not anywhere well off, and actually our meals were more like what you’ve heard about than like what Axelle says. Not breakfast, which was bread, with tons of butter and sometimes chocolate, and usually sugary cereals. But we had vegetables or fruits for the first plate at every meal, and for our second plates (we had two most days) we usually had one meat and one vegetable, with a sans porc option for the many Muslim children. Our third dessert plate was a fruit about twice a week, and for snack in the afternoon, we almost always had fruit. These meals were the same for all the kids where I worked, and for all of the day care kids in the city of 20,000. I’ve looked at the menus online, and the meals during the school year are quite the same.
I think the French are more concerned about weight gain than Americans in the first place. I didn’t have a television, but any food add on a billboard has a warning, akin to those on alcohol ads, saying something like “avoid eating too much fat, sugar, or salt” or “be sure to eat 5 vegetables and fruits a day.” Many fo the young children I was working with would often comment on how this or that “will make you get fat” and that they shouldn’t eat too much of it.
I can’t much comment on access to organic food. It was actually in France that I shopped at supermarkets, in America, I never do, and am far more likely to buy my fruit at markets (which were infrequent in my town in France).
I’ve never had the experiences that many commenters are mentioning with weight loss while in foreign countries, but I don’t have that much weight to lose and lead far too active of a lifestyle normally (D1 athlete in a sport with a weight maximum, unable to drive and therefore walk mot everywhere) for it to just fall off from merely chasing around kids at work and walking a few miles on the weekends. My sister, who studied abroad in France, but in the South, and who’s way thinner and more athletic than I am, agreed with me that quite the opposite happens, “everyone gets fat in France.”

Severine May 4, 2012 - 9:59 AM

Great article, and I have heard Axelle’s sentiments echoed by SEVERAL people who have lived for extended periods in France and who are french themselves. French women ARE professional dieters, these “eat like the French” books are leaving that variable out of the equation. There is more pressure on french women to be thin, even during pregnancy it’s looked down on to gain too much weight (info taken anecdotally so take it with a grain of salt).

They do however, eat a lot less junk and snacks than we Americans do.

This is by far the most informative health oriented website I’ve been to. Thanks Erika and keep up the good work!

Aisha May 8, 2012 - 10:21 AM

My family in France all live on a farm in Bretagne and east off their land, so as you can imagine, their experience will differ greatly from that of a Parisien. Where do ppl get the idea that a) Paris is the epicenter of French tradition and b) that the people of France are a monolith?

Erika Nicole Kendall May 8, 2012 - 10:31 AM

Probably the same place they got the idea that all Blacks/Black women are a monolith.

I wish they’d send it back. ROFL

marie September 24, 2012 - 10:11 AM

I read the other post: leg of lamb? Really?? They might have taken the example of ONE cafeteria located in the area of ONE specific social class, and made up a general rule of it.

I totally agree with axelle. This is BS.
True that portions are smaller in France, even in McDonald’s we don’t have those supersize menus and you cannot refill your drink. I have friends from different social class and what I can see, those coming from a higher social class ( middle from upper) are really into dieting and rarely go to McDonald’s. But of course I can’t generalize my friends to explain the trend in France.

As per the quality of food, if you want something of quality it has a price, most people go to discount supermarket where the quality of the veggies is mostly poor, if you want something better, you have to go to “upper class” supermarkets but you wallet will remember it.. And I have noticed: I hardly meet any overweight people going to those supermarkets… Hardly. As per restaurants, most of them that we call “brasserie” serve you processed foods, “home made pies” that are cut and designed ( yes that’s designed) in a way that make you believe your grandma baked it!

France is a lot about appearance, eat a lot at the restaurant, have dessert or take food 2 times at the cafeteria? And you will be given the side eye.
I remember few years ago I was at the McDonald’s and a skinny couple was queuing to order and they were making comments about one overweight lady ordering something “I don’t understand those people are already fat and they go to McDonald’s…”
I was voiceless, France is a judging society.

Kadia September 25, 2012 - 1:54 PM

Hello, very interesting read! Ah the French! Why are we the example to follow, I do not know. There is this idea of the ideal French woman and way of life that seems to travel around the world. I read the post about the French diet and have to admit that the testimonies only match a little percentage of France. Yes people are slimmer but you can’t compare life in France or Europe in general with that of the US. We live differently, we do not have a car culture, we do not watch that much tv, althought that is catching up… We do have McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, like everywhere else in the world. There is obese people too just not as much but it is catching up.

moya July 6, 2013 - 7:53 PM

I spent a lot of time in France as au pair and learnt that French women run around buying fresh ingredients and then cook meals with at least three courses. No snacking.I remember going to Morrocco where the women were a little heavier than in France but so beautiful,curvy majestic and feminine.I wanted to look like them.I think a few extra pounds keeps the face young.People of color are so lovely and have creamier skin and fantastic teeth.We are envious Everyone should enjoy their own beauty. From Ireland

Jessi July 18, 2013 - 8:36 AM

Hi Erika, I read this and your previous linked post. An excellent read and get comments. I think it really reflects how lifestyles are changing, people are busier, there are more things available for us to do, yet still the same amount of time to do them in, takeaway/processed foods are more readily available and an easy option. Reading this says to me, it’s not just America that is suffering with these changes, these changes are happening everywhere.

Marin July 18, 2013 - 1:46 PM

As someone who has both visited France and lived in Europe for several months at a time, the biggest difference I noticed were the portion sizes. Even at American chains like McDonald’s the portion sizes were much smaller. I wish I still had the photo in my phone, but a large orange juice at a McDonald’s in Paris IS SMALLER THAN A SMALL ORANGE JUICE at a McDonald’s in Chicago. I ordered a small orange juice in Paris, only to receive something that looked like a shot glass.
So even when they eat “unhealthy”, they aren’t stuffing themselves.

Also, while in Paris, I had to grocery shop for fruits and veggies every 2 or 3 days, as they tended to ripen much quicker over there due to lack of hormones, pesticides, and other contaminants. This probably supports the lady’s comments about the cost of shopping for fresh produce as well as many arguments that question the organic nature of US foods.

Other observations about lifestyle: Europeans walk WAY more. I lost weight as I clocked in about 5 miles of walking a day just to complete my basic errands.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 18, 2013 - 4:26 PM

“This probably supports the lady’s comments about the cost of shopping for fresh produce as well as many arguments that question the organic nature of US foods.”

I can cede this, certainly, but I will never not side-eye these comments. LOL

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