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As a French woman who spent 5 years living in the US, a question that I often heard was “How come French women don’t get fat? What’s your secret? How can French women eat pastries and cheese and drink wine and stay thin?”
After living in both places, experiencing both cultures, and analyzing French and American people’s different relationships with food, I actually found quite a few answers to these questions.
So if you want to know the reason why French women don’t get fat and learn all of their secrets, keep on reading!
Disclaimer: (Kind of long but necessary, feel free to skip it if you wish!)
I’m obviously going to be making a lot of generalizations here. It goes without saying that some French women have none of these habits, while some American women have them all.
In addition, some French women are fat, and some American women are thin. I’m talking about the general public, what I’ve learned from people around me, and basing myself off of certain studies and books.
It’s important to note that being fat has nothing to do with your self-worth. It’s totally fine to be fat. Sure, being obese can be unhealthy but being super thin and smoking/drinking all day is unhealthy as well. I’m writing this article for those who are curious to pick up a healthy habit or two— definitely NOT to make anyone feel bad about themselves!
I will also mainly be talking about women in this article because I am a woman myself and have mainly observed and interacted with other women on these issues. Furthermore, women have a much greater societal pressure to be thin and attractive than men— which is absolutely devastating— but it’s also why men probably won’t be as interested in this article.
Finally, I am stating differences I’ve found that can explain why French people stay thin— I’m not judging any way of eating/living or saying that one is better than the other!
Now all of this being said, back to the article!
Are French people actually thinner?
Looking at the data from 2016, 36.2% of American adults are obese, versus 21.6% of French adults. Globally, 13% of adults in the world are obese.
In addition, French people have one of the lowest death rates from coronary heart disease in the world, which tracks well with obesity rates . This observation led to something called the French Paradox: French people had these low death rates from heart diseases despite high intakes of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat .
Even if the validity of this French Paradox has been disputed, it has still led to interesting research. The French diet was found to be generally healthier than other nations at the time .
Therefore, even if all French people aren’t magically thin, the USA looks to France to improve their health, and not the other way around.
What is the French woman’s diet?
As you may have guessed, the main reason why French women don’t get fat lies in their diet!
1. French people tend to eat more whole foods and less processed foods. Processed foods are generally the exception, while whole foods are the norm. French people also enjoy eating fresh foods.
Our fridges are much smaller than yours, and only store enough food for a few days. Since most of the food is fresh, it goes bad pretty quickly so there’s no use in over-stocking. Regular trips to the grocery store or the market are necessary when your food is fresh and not processed, and this is a normal thing in France.
2. French people also eat lots of fruit and vegetables. I honestly never have a meal without some sort of fruit or veggie, unless I’m eating out. I remember being pretty surprised when I regularly saw American lunches that had meat drenched in sauce, tons of refined carbs, soda, candy bars, and only three orange slices as a fruit portion. On the contrary, French people incorporate fresh fruit and veggies into their meals all the time.
3. In France, water is the main beverage during meals. We always have water at the table and only have other beverages on special occasions. Sure, French women love to enjoy a glass of wine once in a while— but the vast majority of them don’t have it during every meal, and never as a replacement for water.
4. Portion sizes are also much smaller here! I remember how shocked I was with the huge portion sizes in American restaurants. The thing is, when you get used to eating huge portions, regular-sized portions don’t satisfy you as much.
Even if French people eat their fair share of high-calorie, fatty, sugary foods, since the portion sizes are much smaller, it really doesn’t impact them that much.
5. Snacking is super rare in France, at least the way Americans do. We do snack, but during a set period of time (often around four o’clock), where we eat a small amount of food in order to wait until dinner (which is rarely before 7:30 PM).
For example, we can have some fruit, some nuts, a few biscuits, some yogurt, a granola bar, some chocolate…Nothing like Americans who have a pantry filled with snacks to grab all day long as they please, and which are often super processed.
Snacking is something American people often do out of boredom or habit, while French people treat a snack like a small meal to refill their energy.
6. Now, this next one may be more personal, but I feel like French food has so much more taste and variety than American food. French people cook with tons of fresh produce, herbs, and spices, which make even a plate of veggies taste amazing.
I feel like in America, if the food isn’t deep-fried, full of sugar, or drenched in sauce, it tastes pretty bland. I also find the fruit here to taste so much better and flavorful than the fruit in the US.
In addition, we eat tons of varied meals here, even at school. I remember having entirely different school lunches during weeks on end in France, while I was served the same 3 meals over and over in America.
7. Finally, I really feel like French people value quality over quantity. They would rather enjoy the occasional grass-fed organic steak from the butcher than have tons of processed meat every day.
They have cakes and sweets, sure, but they bake their own cake (from scratch, not a cake mix!) or buy some viennoiseries in reputable boulangeries once in a while. They prefer this over bulk-buying industrially processed cupcakes and brownies during every grocery shopping session.
The whole “low-sugar, low-fat” thing isn’t really popular here either. Better to eat the real thing once in a while than the diet version every day! Indeed, we know that moderation is key, and that we can enjoy whatever we want as long as it is occasional.
What is the French way of eating?
Their diet isn’t the only reason why French women don’t get fat.
8. Food education here is huge compared to the States. From a very young age, kids are served a variety of foods and learn about their different benefits. Mealtime is an important part of their daily school schedule and kids are served healthy and balanced 3-course lunches.
Little kids in France eat the same meals as their parents, which often isn’t the case in the US. I see so many families making a specific “kid-friendly” meal for the kids (often including a bunch of processed foods and very few veggies), then having their own “adult meal” later on.
In France, there are no “kid foods”: children are exposed to all types of foods very early on and learn to enjoy a wide variety of things. I remember being so surprised when I saw how American parents had different food options available for each kid because none of them liked the same things. Kids in France learn to eat what they are served, and this way they grow up liking a huge variety of foods.
9. A big reason why French women don’t get fat is that they practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is a technique used to regain control over your eating habits. It means being aware of what you eat, and eating consciously in a healthy and balanced way in order to rediscover taste, flavor, and pleasure.
The goal is to listen to what your body needs, to know when you are hungry and when you are full. Mindful eating involves listening to your hunger cues. It means eating slowly, taking the time to chew, and noticing the different textures and flavors of your food. Eating should be done without any distractions, focused on appreciating your food. (Read this article for more information on how to practice mindful eating.)
French people rarely eat on-the-go: they have long, home-cooked meals at home and extended lunch breaks (between one and two hours!) at work and school. This enables them to eat mindfully and to savor each bite, as opposed to shoving down their food in a couple of minutes just to curb their hunger. The way food looks and smells is also important for them.
10. Along those lines, enjoying meals as a family is very important in France. Meal-time is a moment to get together, to talk about our day, and to enjoy good food over a prolonged period of time.
I remember having the occasional Friday night meal in front of a movie with my family as a child, but this was definitely not the norm. Again, this leads to better food education and more mindful eating.
11. In France, people also eat out (or order take-out) at a much lower rate than in the United States. Ordering food or eating out is just not a regular occurrence here. I’m always surprised at how frequently Americans order their dinner off food apps without giving it a second thought.
Like I’ve mentioned previously, home-cooked meals are super important here and people often plan their meals in advance to make sure they always have the right ingredients on hand.
12. Calorie-counting isn’t really a thing in France. People generally know how to create healthy and balanced plates, and are pretty good at eating the right portion sizes. They rarely feel the need to count their calories, and fad diets and drastic weight loss methods aren’t very popular. This leads to a better and healthier relationship with food, which is the next topic I want to discuss.
Which relationship do French people have with food?
13. In general, French women have a much healthier relationship with food than American women. They take great pleasure in eating and enjoy having healthy and delicious meals, but they aren’t obsessed with food.
Eating is certainly very enjoyable, but it’s not something French people are consumed with all day. They most often see food as a pleasing way to fuel their body and to take care of themselves rather than seeing it as a reward or turning to it for comfort.
14. French women are also less obsessed with their weight than American women. If they gain a few pounds, they’ll just be a little more careful with their food choices and won’t make a huge deal out of it. Mireille Guiliano, the author of the book “French women don’t get fat”, says it well: “French women take pleasure in staying thin by eating well, while American women see it as a conflict and obsess over it .
15. Similarly, French people are also very good at balance and “regulating” their meals naturally. If they know that they are going to have dinner at a restaurant, they’ll naturally have a lighter lunch. If they decide to have a slice of cake for dessert, they’ll eat less of the main course. And they won’t feel any food guilt for overeating.
They eat more intuitively than American people (here’s an article on the benefits of intuitive eating), which is certainly the result of their excellent food education. They don’t really suffer from the all-or-nothing mentality (more on that here !) like a lot of American women do, in part because they don’t have any off-limit foods or harsh restrictions.
How the French way of living also helps to stay thin.
To end this article, I want to talk about a couple of other factors at play.
16. The first one is physical activity. While French people don’t necessarily engage in sports or go to the gym more often than American people, they do tend to be more active. In big cities especially, they walk everywhere, take public transportation, or bike-ride.
They often take the stairs instead of the elevators as well (and there are TONS of stairs everywhere!) American people prefer driving over walking, but most of the time they can’t really help it because cars are much more needed to get around. However, it’s possible to try parking a bit further away to get in those extra steps!
17. Finally, French women genuinely enjoy taking care of themselves. I really don’t want this to sound controversial. Firstly, being fat doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t taking care of yourself. You can eat healthily and still be fat. Again, I’m generalizing for comprehension purposes.
Secondly, I honestly love the American way of doing things as well, so these are just my observations without any judgement.
That being said, I’ve noticed that for French women, dressing up, getting ready, and being mindful of their diet is something that they find pleasurable, and that they don’t see as a constraint.
In school or college, French girls are often dressed in cute and stylish clothes, whereas American girls will often prefer comfort. (And there’s nothing wrong with that at all!) I remember being so surprised when I saw American women grocery shopping in pajama shirts, sweat-pants and flip-flops— French women will always get nicely dressed, even to run a quick errand.
Most French women enjoy getting ready to leave their house. Doing their hair, makeup, and expressing themselves through their style is more important to them than wearing cozy, comfy clothes.
It’s the same thing for their way of eating. They don’t see healthy eating as a punishment or something annoying that they are obliged to do. They enjoy taking care of their health and their body by eating nutritious and balanced meals.
It’s just another way for them to feel good. Again, this doesn’t mean that societal standards haven’t unfairly influenced them to do so— but in the end it’s something they commonly appreciate doing.
Why French women don’t get fat in conclusion.
Well here you have it— the full picture on why French women don’t get fat.
As you can see, this lies in a variety of factors, such as their diet, their way of eating, their relationship with food, and their way of living.
Keep in mind that one— these are generalizations, and two— you don’t necessarily have to strive for this if you don’t want to— my only goal is to give advice to those who are looking for it!
If you enjoyed this article and wish to learn even more, check out this super cheap book, “French women don’t get fat” by Mireille Guiliano. It’s the #1 national bestseller that launched a fabulous French Revolution about how to approach healthy living: the ultimate non-diet book—now with more recipes.