Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Eating French

Two comments I hear all the time as I show tourists around France:
     - The roads are in such good condition! (especially from Michiganders)
     - Where are all the fat people?
And both are legitimate questions.
     For the roads, it’s my tax dollars - er, euros - at work. Even small county roads are impeccably paved... and repaved every several years.
     As to the fat people, well, that’s a question that has puzzled Americans for years. Books have even been written about it.
     There are several reasons to explain how a nation world-renowned for its cuisine - rife with cream and butter and crème fraîche - remains so svelte. And there are signs indicating that with the in-roads being made among the young by that Scottish restaurant, McDonald’s (or MacDoh, as it’s known in France), waistlines are expanding. Still the question remains: why are the French systematically thinner than my fellow Americans?
   Reason Number One: Smaller portions. How many times have I heard Americans initially complain that the food the waiter serves up on their plate is less than they expected... only to admit at the end of the multiple-course meal that they’re not hungry any more? Not only are American servings larger than they once were, but also plates in American restaurants are larger than they used to be, so it may be an optical illusion that makes us feel the portion is still the same as it’s always been. But on the news today, I learned that Americans are now eating 590 more calories a day than in 1977! Do the math.

      Reason Number Two: More exercise. French people burn more calories, whether it’s Parisians walking the streets of the capital or rural people biking to market and back. When I show people around and we indulge in all that excellent French cuisine, they always worry that they’re gaining weight. And I always tell them not to worry because we’re constantly on the move and they’re walking more than they do at home... which wouldn’t be hard in most cases. Of course they’re too polite to tell me they think I’m wrong. But once they get home and step on the scales, they’re surprised to find they indeed haven’t gained a pound.
     Reason Number Three: No snacking. The French do not eat between meals. There are no boxes of chocolate in their desk drawers, nor packets of cookies in their purses and attaché cases. The French have breakfast, and then maybe coffee at work (usually without sugar), but cups are notoriously small and potent in France, and maybe all that caffeine boosts their basal metabolism. Next comes lunch, which used to be the big meal of the day when people went home for a two-hour lunch break, but now they eat on the run, just like the rest of us in the rat race. Children are granted a quatre heures, an after-lunch snack. The traditional snack was French bread with a few squares of chocolate slipped inside - a sort of chocolate sandwich - but by the time my children arrived, that had become a piece of fruit, or a yoghurt, and maybe - maybe - one or two cookies. Dinner arrives typically at seven-thirty or eight, and it’s usually a light meal: soup or an omelette or a cheese platter and green salad, with fresh fruit or a milk-based product such as yoghurt or fromage frais at the end. (Cakes and pies and such are reserved for festivities, or for dinner out at a restaurant.)
     So you add all that up - or rather you do the subtraction - and you come out with a smaller waistline. Or at least not a bigger one.

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