Why the French will never get fat
Why the French will never get fat
I am writing this article in the middle of the World Cup soccer and the French have just won their match over Nigeria by a score of two to nil. In bars and restaurants all over Toronto can we imagine the French indulging in vast amounts of alcohol and food that is so synonymous with most of the other cultures that are rooting for their teams in this contest? They eat smaller portions of very rich food and they never get fat. How is this possible?
My youngest son went to University in Paris and I loved visiting him and enjoying the French culture. One day I was having some blueberries and the taste simply exploded in my mouth and slowly my throat was bathed in rich juices. The meat of the berry was soft and succulent. These blueberries were grown in France.
After I returned home I ate some blueberries I purchased here in a local supermarket. There was a bit of a bluish flavour which seemed to be fighting with the petroleum essence of the packaging. The meat of the berry was dry and flavourless. I was back home in Canada.
I cannot tell you how many studies I have read about why the French are not obese (although some are achieving this because of American fast-food chains) and why the incidence of heart attacks and strokes is less than half of that of North Americans in spite of the fact that more of the French smoke than we do. The old theory was that it was the red wine: in fact some researchers even went so far as to say it was the resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that was in the red wine.
This is all nonsense. The answer is in the food and the way the French consume that food.
For a moment think of a grand prix Formula 1 race. The leading car comes into the pit, has its tires changed, is filled up with gas, its visor cleaned, and is on its way. This is the way most North Americans treat food. A quick pit-stop to refuel and go on with their maddening day. On the other hand, the main meal of the day in France is midday. Everything in the whole country is closed down for 2 to 3 hours in the afternoon while people in ambient social settings relax and enjoy their meal, usually with a glass of wine. They have a minimum of 2 hours off work to eat their midday meal.
Parking is free for those two hours because everyone must eat. French employers are obliged to provide their workers with a real meal each work day so they may sit down and converse with their fellow workers while they enjoy their meal. The workers are like family and even though they are working they are allowed a glass of wine.
Dinner for them will be a much lighter meal which will include some bread, soup, cheese, a little ham or maybe a freshly baked baguette from just down the street.
The second and equally important factor is the actual food. Our food is very bland and we keep eating and eating hoping to achieve some satisfaction from the huge platefuls that many Canadians and Americans scarf down in restaurants and even at home.
When I eat in France there is such a rich sensation on the taste buds that you actually want to hold that food in your mouth longer and savour the flavour. You eat more slowly because the taste is so good. You almost don’t want to swallow the food and let the experience end. You have many courses and lots of conversation between the courses. A meal with friends in France can take 2 to 3 hours easily and never more than 2 glasses of wine during that time. Wine is a lot less fattening than Coke or Pepsi and in France a glass of wine is actually a lot less expensive than a cola: not like here with huge 40 ounce heavy calorie colas. When I return from a visit to France I am either the same weight or I may have actually lost a few pounds, in spite of all the rich foods, cream sauces and ice cream I consumed.
In France the ice cream is actually made of cream. Their chocolate is a natural brown colour with musky dark flavour, not covered in wax like our chocolate. When I am home I rarely ever eat a desert. In France I look forward to tiny flavour bombs of delightful mixed textures of things I can barely pronounce. Our taste in North America calls for huge lumps of doughy pulp coated in sugar and grease like our cupcakes which have become so popular.
Then we have the issue of “fresh food” that has travelled a week from California, Chile, Argentina or Mexico. But it’s not so much the freshness as the convenience. Our fruits and vegetables are selected for shipping durability and visual marketing, whereas French fruits and vegetables are selected for taste, taste, flavour and taste. And I should add that it is against the law in most European countries to use GMO foods.
If you look at the example of tomatoes, ours are bright red, perfect orbs of cellulose, holding as much water as possible to increase their weight. In fact now they are strung together on their vines and sold for $2.99 a pound. We take them home, our perfect looking tomatoes, and slice off a bite: cellulose, water and seeds and no taste. We have brought up a whole generation that thinks this is what a tomato should taste like.
There is an exception because in Canada in late summer we get to buy field tomatoes that explode with flavour like my French blueberries. Many people grow their own in their gardens but unfortunately we only get this taste treat for a small part of the year. After that it’s back to the flavourless variety at the supermarket.
A few years ago the French supermarches tried marketing those bright red tennis balls that came with the vines attached. They looked nice and people tried them, once, and never bought them again. Yes the French have good taste in all things, food as well as clothes.
In North America when we have completely grown all the flavour out of the food we then add salt, sugar and grease and we eat and eat hoping to get some satisfaction from the experience.
There is one area in which we do better in Canada and that is our beef. French beef comes from a strain of cattle that were used as draft animals and it is tough, not marbled and it tends to be sinewy. However, once they marinate it and cover it with their rich sauces it becomes delicious. If you are ever in France order the Steak Frites and enjoy the wonderful flavour of your petite steak.
Taste, flavour and enjoyment of food are central to the French way of life. Eating is not refueling but a social experience in which you interact with friends and family. I believe this lower level of stress is a key factor in the low incidence of heart attacks and strokes in France.
We live in a bilingual country. We could certainly use some French influence here to change our farming and eating habits on the way to enriching our culture. If you ever get to France and you see large people waddling down the Champs-Elysees it will be obvious to you that they are the tourists and definitely not French.