On the Table

When it comes to diet, Paris becomes the city of lighter

CORRESPONDENTDecember 22, 2010 

— Go to Paris to lose weight? C'est vrai.

I visited the City of Lights - and good food - last week to teach with colleagues in the French national school of public health. I knew I would come home at least one pound lighter.

That may come as a surprise if you love the fine cheeses, wine and desserts found everywhere in France, where days start with coffee and the chocolate pastry "pain au chocolat."

But I have observed the phenomenon to hold true time and again. My American colleagues have commented the same: Despite immersion in a fantasyland of fine food, we lose weight.

Why?

I've written about the French dietary paradox in earlier columns. The book "French Women Don't Get Fat" addresses the question head-on.

Why it works

But you don't have to be a nutrition expert or spend a lot of time in Paris to deconstruct the formula. In France, food and culture conspire to alter behavior in several ways.

In France, it's easy to:

Buy less. Yes, everything is beautiful and tastes great. A dainty cup of coffee is served on a doily and plate with a tiny square of chocolate or a cookie the size of a nickel.

It costs a lot - up to $5 per cup - and if you want a second cup, you have to pay for it. No free refills.

I slowly decaffeinate.

Portions are smaller and food costs more. Supersize that drink or order of fries? Not here.

Enjoy the food more. You would think that you'd eat more of it if it looked and tasted so good, right? But artful presentation and quality have the opposite effect.

Little works of food art are so satisfying that one by itself feels complete. More would only take away that sense that what you had was special.

Besides, let's face it. Most of us are no longer hungry after a modest serving of food. We take seconds at home because the food is available, not because we need the calories.

See healthy choices everywhere. Fresh produce stands sell fruits and vegetables in small supermarkets, corner markets on the street, even in Metro stations.

"Salade avec chèvre chaud" - salad with hot cheese - is one of my favorite meals. Three small rounds of toasted French bread topped with melted goat cheese perched atop a large dinner plate covered with mixed greens and raw vegetables.

The bread and cheese amount to less food than a small sandwich half. The raw veggies that constitute the rest of the meal are filling and nearly calorie-free.

Walk to more places. Walk to school, walk to dinner, walk along the river after dinner. The miles add up, and the calories burn.

It all boils down to a simple, familiar equation: Eat less, exercise more.

In Paris, I eat fewer calories and move more than I do at home. Instead of feeling deprived and hungry, though, I feel satisfied and not overstuffed.

The challenge is to re-create the same dynamic at home, North Carolina-style.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management and the Department of Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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