I’ve had an obsession with all things French since I was about 8 years old. So when I stumbled across the book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Giuliano a few years ago, it was a natural that I picked it up and devoured it. The book describes a way of eating and living that is focused on pleasure and moderation, and advocates an approach to food and exercise that is sustainable over a lifetime. In other words, it describes a method very different from the restrictive diets and two-hour gym sessions that are commonly thought necessary to lose weight.
The idea that I could lose and maintain weight without devoting tons of excess time and energy everyday was really appealing. Here’s my story: I’ve always been somewhat conscious of my size. I grew taller than other girls by the end of elementary school, and felt super awkward as a result. On top of that, I have always had a healthy appetite and love to eat – I still do! It’s just how I’m wired. Unfortunately, when I hit puberty, the excess calories from eating too much junk food (and bacon – I seem to remember lots of bacon) caught up with me. I got a little chubby and my conscientious mom put us all on a diet – herself, my sister, and me. The diet worked and I lost the extra weight, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. I remember always feeling a little hungry or craving some food I couldn’t have.
Later, in middle and high school, my life got a little chaotic. There were family problems along with the normal pressures of adolescence, and I had few coping strategies for dealing with an emotionally very difficult time. I developed a years-long habit of disordered eating, where I’d restrict my calories as long as I could, and then binge on high-calorie foods because I was so hungry. I felt bad about it but didn’t really know how to get out of that pattern – I didn’t know what a healthy relationship to food was. This continued into college, until eventually I learned enough about nutrition (which became my major) and how to manage life’s difficulties in ways that didn’t involve food, to normalize my eating to a large extent. Still, I always felt like I was eating too much and exercising too little, and was always compensating for perceived overindulgence.
So imagine my delight when I came across this book that said definitively that eating for pleasure was a normal and celebrated part of life, and that pleasure could coexist with a healthy diet and program of weight management. A lot of vegetables and fruit, a little olive oil, a little bread, protein, a bit of dessert and wine – every day! I decided to try this, and to give up my approach of “overdoing it” on “unhealthy” food, followed by dietary repentance. With this new method, I’d have a bit of good quality pizza and a big salad – enough to feel full – with some wine and dark chocolate, and would be satisfied! And I didn’t feel like I had to cut back the next day.
An essential part of this approach is that life has MANY pleasures, not just food and wine. When I was younger I relied too much on food for comfort and pleasure. I didn’t know all the other things I could do to soothe myself or experience enjoyment. We humans are wired for pleasure, and we ignore our need for joy and fun at our detriment. Including more fun activities, beauty, friends, family, and above all, space and relaxation, have been central to my French-woman lifestyle.
When I finally visited France for the first time last summer, I was struck by how thoroughly the people live by these principles. The pace of life is slower. Overwork, days spent rushing about, and chronic unrelieved stress are far less common. Sit-down meals with loved ones, leisurely glasses of wine, and defined periods of work and leisure are far more common. I’m still working on moving my life further toward the French ideal that I envision. It really is more a decision and state of mind than a life overhaul. We really don’t need to go to the market every day or have a four-day workweek and five weeks of vacation to start living in a more balanced way (though these things would all be nice!).
In short, the French way, to me, means taking a deep breath and making a firm commitment to try pleasure as a guiding principle in food and exercise. It also means dealing with emotion with a method suited to that task – like writing, psychotherapy, self-help, meditation, or yoga – rather than food. Finally, it means taking the time to practice this new way of being and being patient with myself as I learn. Balance is a process, not a static state.
Finally, a few concrete things that have helped me a lot: (1) Eating until I’m satisfied at mealtimes, but no more often than every four hours. It’s better for me to be full after a meal and then thoroughly hungry by my next meal; otherwise, I’m just sort of hungry all the time. (2) Along with that, if I get super hungry before mealtime, I have a cup of tea. I prefer green, but any kind will do. Good Earth ‘original sweet and spicy’ tea is delicious and has no caffeine. Try it – tea really decreases my appetite for a good hour or so, usually enough to stretch until the next mealtime. (3) I move a lot. I do go to the gym, but only 1-2 times a week. I walk a LOT, hike for fun on the weekends, go to dance classes, and even do exercise videos in my living room. I do think weight or resistance training is essential to building muscle and maintaining a healthy metabolism. (4) I’ve accepted that I love to eat! I have kind of a high metabolism, I’m tall, I get really hungry, and consequently I often eat more than other women my size. I used to feel like I must be doing something wrong, but now I realize that’s just how I’m set up. Find your own guidelines based on experimenting rather than rigidly following rules.