On the Table

Eating healthy can be a pleasure

CorrespondentMay 27, 2014 

— How often do you see college students eating salad for lunch – and smiling about it?

What I’ve observed at the Centre Virchow-Villerme has impressed me. The Center, established in 2013 with support from the French and German governments, is dedicated to promoting teaching and research in global public health.

About a dozen student interns, recent doctorate graduates and postgraduates staff the Paris headquarters. Nobody talks about diet, but they all eat exceptionally well.

In my view, it’s a phenomenon.

They eat lunch together most days, gathering around a conference table or outside in the sunshine. The hourlong break is a time for relaxed conversation and laughter.

And there’s not a soft drink or french-fry in sight.

Instead, the norm is leftovers from last night’s dinner, large fresh salads, plenty of fresh fruit and big bottles of water. No exceptions.

How can it be? Education can’t be the only explanation. I know plenty of people who know better and don’t eat well.

This group – most well under 30 – eat more healthfully than most people I know, and certainly better than their American peers.

I’ve asked them, and despite their smiles and shrugs, I have some ideas about what the explanations may be. Among them:

• There isn’t any fast food nearby. The Centre, in the heart of Paris, is surrounded by cafes, food stands selling baguette sandwiches, and fruit and vegetable markets. If the fast food is there, it’s hiding.

• Food is expensive. Bringing food from home is more cost-effective than eating out in the big city.

• They’re surrounded by good choices. When they do buy lunch, it’s usually a crusty baguette with fresh fillings. Nothing fried and no sweets.

• There’s a tradition of leisurely group lunches. Socializing and relaxing is expected.

• There is a model for eating this way. They eat this way at home, too. Fresh, high-quality foods are a way of life.

Last week, a student intern appeared at my door to invite me to lunch. Smiling, she held a huge green salad in one hand and a large bottle of water in the other.

I couldn’t help but smile, too, and appreciate a food environment that makes eating healthfully a daily pleasure.

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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