Reading Into It: French Women Don’t Get Fat

by Rachel on May 3, 2010

Me reading French Women Don’t Get Fat is a very good example of me not always jumping on certain bandwagons. This book came out in 2007. It’s made the morning show rounds. There have been two sequels. I’m clearly late to the game.

Why? Because in 2007, I was way too far into the “pink zone” of foods to have any interest in a book that encourages the sort of diet that this book is all about. But lately, given my love for butter, distaste for crazy cardio, and general disinterest in washing my hair, I realized…maybe there was a connection here.

The book is more memoir than I expected, which is probably why I liked it so much. I’ve definitely had a travel bug lately; I miss my trip to Paris!

In the meantime, I’ve settled for reading foreign travel memoirs and fantasizing about my next trip.

So. The French woman teaching us how to not get fat is Mireille Guiliano (who is French but has lived in the US for many years; she is also the CEO of Veuve Clicquot, which is cool on many levels) talks about how she was a slim French girl her whole life until she came to America to study abroad when she was 19…and gained about 20 pounds. Her family was shocked upon her return and her self-confidence was absolutely shot…and then she gained even more because she was unhappy. The family doctor (“Dr. Miracle”) eventually paid her a visit and reminded her how to eat like a French woman again. Once she did, the weight came off easily (although not in a “drop ten pounds overnight!” sort of way) and she’s had no problems since — even now, as she drinks and eats as part of her job.

According to Dr. Miracle, there are two parts of us: the one who wants to be slim and healthy and the one who wants “pleasure aplently, and now.” (Mmm…yup!) He says the key is to make friends of your two selves and be the master of both your willpower and your pleasures. So he taught her to find her personal balance…and that’s what she teaches here.

Now I am, by nature, an “all-the-way” kinda girl. But she makes a pretty damn good case for moderation and balance in this book.

“Achieving balance has more to do with the mind than with the stomach; it’s about discovering and dealing with mon petits demons…Once you realize that changing one’s habits is mostly a state of mind, you will see why the only truly effective approach is one that engages your head.” OK, madame…you have my attention.

After you keep a food diary for three weeks to identify what it is that seems to be the problem, the next step is to “recast” and basically start looking for what you need to balance in your life. “This means no pizza three days in a row, but also no three hours at the gym on Saturday.” (There’s also a chapter with questions to ask yourself to tackle the emotional aspect of weight loss, which I always appreciate seeing.) So you look at your food diary and say, “What could I do without — or at least with less of?” She’s a big fan of small things adding up and reducing things in small increments.

Her whole philosophy is that a French woman’s secret is mainly in her head. She masters the mental part of living well and teaches herself to be satisfied differently.

Other rules of eating like a French woman…

  • If your “offending” foods are junky and processed, upgrade them to something better so you’re truly getting pleasure in what you eat.
  • Quality of food is a recurring theme. She talks a lot about eating seasonally, because seasonal food tastes better and therefore it’s easier to be satisfied with the simplest (and often healthiest) foods. All the recipes in the book are just comprised of simple, whole foods.
  • She points out that in America, there seems to be a gastronomic class system. “The right and opportunity to enjoy the earth’s seasonal best seems to be monopolized by an elite. Outside their ranks, the great majority of Americans are conditioned to demand and accept bland, processed, chemically treated, generally unnatural foods, which through packaging and marketing, have been made to seem wholesome.” AMEN. Isn’t this what the Food Revolution is saying too?! Basically, the system is broken.
  • Variety is key. Food boredom leads to overeating because we seek more food to compensate for the fact that our palate is just bored. “Novelty is a powerful distraction.”
  • Ritual eating. No TV, no computer, no eating out of cartons. Of course, she makes it seem like there is nothing in the world better than sitting down to a set table. (I tend to agree!)
  • Portion control. “Half a pound of anything in one sitting is too much.”

I really connected with her take on exercise. I think that loving cardio is something extremely American, especially for our generation of women; most girls say they love how it makes them feel. And I do too…but like I’ve recently said, I sort of don’t anymore.

  • If you enjoy some form of a sport, like running, do that, but French women dislike the view of the workout as mandatory. “American women seem to have two modes: sitting or spinning…mindless exercise is almost as bad as mindless eating.”
  • Exercise is to be done by moving more: doing housework, riding your bike to work, walking more (either as part of your daily tasks or just for the sake of exercise), and taking the stairs. (Seriously, her argument for taking the stairs more made me wish I lived in a fourth floor walk-up.) She says you need to just move more — and “if you go to a gym, you’re probably doing enough in spandex, so pick something you can do in street clothes.”
  • She supports strength training for tone and preventing muscle loss, but in a “do some sit-ups before bed” way, not “hire a trainer to punish you” way.
  • She’s romantic about walking: “It’s when I feel my tensions liberated…it can be a special kind of indulgence, these moments when one becomes aware of really existing, as the images, information, and other sensations the world tries to press upon us all recede. Learning to be comfortable in that space, when it’s just you, takes practice. But doing it diminishes the impulse to lie to yourself or run away. You won’t want to.”

I loved that. I totally got it. I’ve just been loving walking lately. Why? I couldn’t understand it. But it’s because I just feel good while I’m do it — and not after. During. I just feel like it’s time with myself more than any other type of exercise. And I also don’t mentally check out as much. I can easily walk for an hour and a half without my ipod. Running? Not so much.

The overarching theme is that you must truly live for pleasure. “For all her attention to what she wears and what she eats, the French woman is most defined by ease in being herself and the attractiveness of taking her pleasures. It has little to do with weighing a certain amount. And it doesn’t come upon you through avoiding food.” She also extends this into sex and romance with some tips on seduction. Basically, American woman often approach food and sex from a place of guilt (which I totally agree with). We approach these things from a scientific point of view and something we have to work at instead of just embracing both as a source of pleasure.

The thing is, I can go on and on about this book, but you really need to read it for yourself because part of what makes it so appealing is her style. So much of this is not new or mindblowing information at all. But because she’s just so elegant and funny and also because she uses French phrases, you will listen. You can’t help but think, “Um, I want to live like this! Sign me up for champagne at lunch and a smaller waist!” Seriously, I know I need to drink more water, but after her chapter on water, I finally stopped saying, “I need to drink more water!” and started doing it.

She’s also a foodie, so as she waxes on about fresh berries or rants about Snickers bars (in her sweet French way), you’ll find yourself just craving real food. And good food! She definitely takes the “taste calories” approach…but I’ve found myself taking this approach more lately, and I’m really happy about it. My square of dark chocolate goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m living a very indulgent life. And I suppose, then, that that’s the whole thing of it. That’s the “tricking yourself” thing that French women put into practice.

I mean, I’ll do pretty much anything that makes me feel European and so I’m pretty down with taking more of her principles to heart. I’ve added pictures of a few European capitals to my vision board — and not just because I really, really miss traveling, and not just because I’m convinced I’ll drop ten pounds if spend some time abroad. Mainly, I just want to remind myself to eat, drink, walk, and sex for a healthy body.

J’adore this book — definitely recommend!

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lauren @ Eater not a runner May 3, 2010 at 8:18 am

Interesting, I didn’t realize it was sort of a memoir at the same time….might have to check it out!

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2 Bridget@PavementandPlants May 3, 2010 at 8:53 am

Don’t wish you lived in a 4th floor walk up. Trust me. Carrying groceries, carrying my bike, coming home drunk….Not Fun.

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3 sarah @ syrupandhoney May 3, 2010 at 9:54 am

I am seriously smitten with walking, too. I typically do it unplugged to be alone with my thoughts and allow myself to thoroughly take in my surroundings, but I think on tomorrow morning’s walk I’m going to listen to your podcast…and I’m equally excited about that!
.-= sarah @ syrupandhoney´s last blog ..Strawberry Basil Tart for Two =-.

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4 Sarah Van May 3, 2010 at 11:10 am

Stop looking over my shoulder! I am listening to this book right now. Freaky! I really enjoy this book and I am trying to figure out some of the indulgences she mentions. Any ideas?

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5 Rachel May 3, 2010 at 11:13 am

So far my indulgences have been a square of dark chocolate or a glass of wine, depending on what I’m in the mood for!! On Saturday night I had both and it was ahhhhh-mazing.

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6 Sophie @ yumventures May 3, 2010 at 11:21 am

I have been wanting to read this book forever, but like you didn’t jump on the bandwagon immediately! Its funny how this came out so many years ago (3? 4?) yet people are just now starting to move back towards “real food” (Michael Pollan?) Like duh, we were told about this years ago, why didn’t we pay attention!? I would love to look back over the past decade or so and pick out the people/books/tv shows that at the time seemed “revolutionary” but have been lost along the way, and really should be brought to light again! Like, the original Real World was a great show, wtf is The Gauntlet?!

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7 Eunice May 3, 2010 at 11:25 am

I love the whole “mindless exercise” point. I’ve been guilty of this many times! Sometimes it’s easier to zone out and go through the motions, but I suppose this defeats the purpose of exercise. Lately I’ve realized that exercise is about so much more than burning calories. When you stop and actually try to hear your body at work..it becomes a totally different experience. I’m dragging the bf out for a walk tonight!

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8 Cal_runner May 3, 2010 at 11:39 am

Cool book. Would definitely check it out. I think Jeffery Steingarten’s book “The Man who Ate Everything” also had a chapter about the way the French eat and I remember it being a little more technical.

As for drinking water, about 9 months ago, I bought a $1.50 1 liter(~32 0z) water bottle from Target (in their Kitchen stuff section). Now, I never hear myself complaining that I do not drink enough water. That bottle stalks me and is always within 5 feet of me, no matter where I am.

Rachel, if you buy this bottle, you will never hate yourself for buying whatever you see in Target. :)

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9 Amanda May 3, 2010 at 11:51 am

MUST get this book! :-)

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10 Manon May 3, 2010 at 12:13 pm

oh, I must get this book! I’ve been trying to read more and I’m a big believer in sometimes there is the “right time” to read a certain book….and from the sounds of it right now is the time I should be reading this.
So many times it takes me 5 or 6 tries before I’m in the right mindset to read a certain book depending on what’s going on in the world of Manon….I never claimed to be normal :)
.-= Manon´s last blog ..Spreading the Loooooove ♥ =-.

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11 MelissaNibbles May 3, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I am in complete agreement with the quality theme. There’s a huge difference in not only taste, but texture and satiety factor of whole, quality foods. A piece of fat free cheddar tastes like plastic compared to a piece of real cheddar cheese. The difference in calories is negligible. The fat free, processed, food crap in America has got to go.

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12 Lia May 3, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I am a big fan of this book. I actually bought the iTunes version last summer which she narrates — it’s so charming! Her attitude is really inspiring — it’s nice to be reminded that we should try to live for pleasure.
.-= Lia´s last blog ..My newest cookbook =-.

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13 Rachel May 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

Lia, that’s SUCH a great idea. I had been thinking about doing French language audiobooks again on my new “French woman” daily walks but HELLO, I love this idea. I bet she’s so cute. Thanks for the tip!!

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14 Gracie May 3, 2010 at 2:19 pm

First of all, I’ve always loved the French culture. I took French throughout high school and a year in college (not surprisingly, I barely remember a thing. Ugh). Without reading this book I can tell you that, from what I’ve learned, the French are just generally very laid back. They seem to find pleasure in the small things. They eat rich food, walk more, take more vacations, etc. Um…blogger trip to France, anyone?!

I agree that moderation is something that mainly takes place in the mind. And I *definitely* agree with this: “American women seem to have two modes: sitting or spinning…mindless exercise is almost as bad as mindless eating.” Over the past couple of months I’ve pretty much given up completely on the intense, mindless cardio I used to do day after day (now I do cardio maybe once or twice a week, and it’s hardly “intense”). Have I gained weight? Nope. Is my metabolism suddenly slower? Doubtful. But am I more happy, less anxious, less hungry, and craving fats & protein over copious amounts of carbs? Sure am! Okay, tangent…sorry. What I’m saying is that I agree that our American concept of a “healthy lifestyle” seems to have backfired on us, yet it’s still engrained in our minds as being correct. For example, even after acknowledging how much better off I am without my bouts of cardio, in the back of my mind I’m thinking “wow I’ve been so lazy lately.”

Long story short, I want/need to read that book. So thanks for the post :)

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15 Kendra May 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm

This book looks really good. I’ve never picked it up because from passing glances it just looked like a gimmick to me. I don’t really like fads and gimmicks. I think that I’ll definitely pick this up now. The emphasis on real whole foods is so nice and I also like the discussion about mindless exercise. I generally do intervals for my cardio because I can’t stand the repetitive mindless movement of walking on the treadmill or of using the eliptical. I like things that force me to focus and engage my body. I guess that’s also why I love dancing so much.
.-= Kendra´s last blog ..In the Meantime… =-.

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16 Jessica May 3, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I loved this book! I heard a lot of people criticize it, but I agree with your take on it. I want to take long, pleasant walks, and hike up the stairs, and enjoy (not obsess about) my food.

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17 Jenn May 3, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Okay…after reading your posting about your reviews, I think I might see what’s going on…when you love something, you really love it! I think you tend to go for it, and not mention the flaws…or maybe this book really doesn’t have any?

I honestly couldn’t get through the book! While I totally agree with most the ideas, I found her to have a holier-than-thou, French culture is superior to American attitude that turned me off. It’s been a while since I read it, and I don’t have a copy in front of me, but I do remember a certain cabbage soup diet she recommends, no? Or some kind of cleansing, eat nothing but boiled leeks for three days?

Overall, I think the ideas are great, but…I can’t give it my full support. (Just giving a counter-point to all the positive reviews.)

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18 Rachel May 3, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Hmmm okay Jenn, negative aspects…well, I probably won’t make ALL the recipes, but I will definitely make SOME. (Already have.) Re: the soup cleanse…yes, you eat the leek broth/leeks for two days. I could totally see how that would be a negative but I’m actually not opposed to fasting — I’ve done it many times and have always felt great after, and, like, had tons of energy to paint my apartment and shit — so that wasn’t a turn-off for me. And I sort of like just skipped over that haha because it was like two pages in the book and I didn’t find it that important. I guess the least interesting part of the book, for me, was the recipes, and hence the leeks, because I was more into the memoir part and what I found to be the wise words on emotional eating and balance and such.

I can see how it might come off as holier-than-thou but I would also say that if it’s been a while then it might be because a few years ago US/French relations weren’t great? I guess because she calls out a lot of the things that I also hate about America, I tend to agree with her on them??

So maybe when things have flaws I just do disregard them because nothing is 100% perfect but I still find them worth it? Not sure, I have to think on that more. :)

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19 hbobier @ Basil Vodka May 7, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I’ve heard of this book but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. It’s moving to the top of my list!

Love this line: “American women seem to have two modes: sitting or spinning…mindless exercise is almost as bad as mindless eating.”

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20 Ameena June 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

This book is nothing short of fabulous! I think the author makes such valid points, including the fact that we should be far more afraid of chemicals in our food than things like butter and cream. Her advice has stayed with me and I read this book when it first came out!!

Great review.

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