On the Table

Hobbs: How French people stay so slim

February 18, 2014 

— It may be an unproven but popular notion that “French women don’t get fat.” But after two weeks of teaching in yet another French city known for its good food and wine, I can count on one hand the number of obese people I’ve seen.

Among 77 students in my short course on nutrition policy, I only noticed one who wasn’t slim. During breaks – even when those occurred over mealtimes – they pulled out of their book bags oranges, water bottles and small containers of leftover food from home.

Or they ran to the vending machine that dispensed little cups of cappuccino and tomato soup. I haven’t seen one soft drink. Not one.

Other observations validate my hunches about the role that portion sizes and food volume play in keeping waistlines so trim here. Here are a few examples:

• Supermarkets sell smaller sizes. In fact, everything is smaller – the carts, the stores, checkout lanes and merchandise.

Bring your own bag for groceries or you’ll have to buy one here. And most people carry what they buy, walking back to the bus or tram or to their home instead of driving.

Shop here and you’ll soon be buying quarts of milk instead of gallons and one box of cereal, not two.

• There’s less food at home. When I arrived for dinner at the home of a faculty member, I was struck by the small size of the refrigerator – about double the size of a dorm fridge – and the lack of cupboard and pantry space.

They keep little food on hand, and what is there is in small quantities.

And our meal was simple – a big salad and cheese fondue served with chunks of French bread for dipping. The entrée was rich, but nobody ate more than several pieces.

Aside from a fruit bowl on the table, there was no other food in sight.

• Eating out is expensive and slow, by design. Yes, McDonald’s is here. But the tradition of leisurely meals lives on.

You’ll eat less, and you’ll put more emphasis on the company and conversation. It’s OK to order nothing more than an appetizer. You’ll get your bill when you ask for it and not before.

Lessons learned: Think light. Buy less, store less, order less, eat less. It works!

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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