Why is France Healthier than America

Last week, I posted a recipe for a healthy dessert that’s a real dessert and not a high-protein, sorta-tastes-like-a-dessert thing. 

In that email, I wrote that I got the idea from the book, French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon. Basically, a North American moves to France and has massive culture shock. The book goes into 10 food rules that Karen developed for her family while in France, and how she had to adapt them to fit North American culture when they eventually moved back (to Canada). 

(Note: In the book, they moved to rural France. Rural France holds onto traditions more so than urban areas.)

If you have kids, it’s definitely worth reading!

If you don’t have kids, or they’ve grown up and moved away, you can still take away a lot of lessons from this book. The traditional views of food in France are very different than our views here in America, or views that we’ve lost over time.  

Below are a few points that relate to everyone. If you are interested in the book, it is available on Amazon as well as audio (Audible and Scribd) 

Portion Control 

 The US is known for supersizing everything. Whether it’s a fast food chain or just a regular restaurant, real portion sizes have been skewed here. This is one reason I tell clients it’s so important to measure or weigh food when first starting out, because we generally eat 2-3 servings and think it’s only one. 

You have to get a French cookbook to see this, but a recipe that we would normally consider two to four servings can be anywhere from six to ten servings. This is one reason French cuisine seems to be loaded with cream, cheese, eggs, and fatty meat yet they still have low levels of heart disease. 

Eating is Guilt-Free

Here in America, eating is a stress. Apparently carbs are bad, fat is bad, protein is bad. Apparently we are just supposed to live off of water and air… but those are polluted, so they get categorized as bad as well. 

On top of that, people eat when stressed, then they feel bad for “cheating” and get stressed about that, and the lower quality food is a stressor on the body, and so they go back to work or whatever already stressed and the cycle continues. 

There is a lot of stress around food here. In France, not so much. They eat small portions, fresh meat or seafood, and fresh local fruits and vegetables for that vast majority of their meals and don’t think twice about it. 

Food is something that is supposed to be fun and social, not viewed as a fuel source of protein, carbs, and fats or in black-and-white terms of “good” or “bad.”

Key point for you, stop stressing about the perfect diet or meal. Focus on protein and vegetables and you’re off to a good start. The best diet is the one that gets you results, you can stick to, and keeps you healthy. 

No Snacking

 “It’s okay to feel hungry” was a common theme in this book. And if your goal is weight loss, feeling hungry is fine. A few weeks ago, I posted an email about what a good snack is and referenced a study showing that most Americans eat 2-4 snacks per day, which are high-calorie low-nutrient foods, and 1 in 5 Americans get 60% of their calories from snacks. 

I’m not telling you not to snack but snacks, when left unchecked, can lead to over 500 uncounted calories. When I write out diets for weight loss, it’s actually pretty tough to fit snacks in while keeping meals a decent size. 

If you choose to snack, do one or two 100-200 calorie snacks a day. 

Food Quality

 In the town the family was in, almost all the food was bought at the local farmer’s market. They had a personal relationship with the farmers, butchers, bakers, and fishermen and could go out to any farm to see the fruits, vegetables, and animals. 

When you rely on local food, you can only get what is in season. So summer fruits and vegetables are only available in summer and they might not be shipped in during the winter. This means better nutrition because food is healthier when picked at peak ripeness rather than ripened artificially. During off seasons, you can’t get those foods so you have to eat what is in season during that time of year, forcing you to eat a wider variety of foods. 

There is also a personal connection to the food and the people growing/processing the food, versus the grocery store we usually shop at. 

What can you do? Try to buy more of your produce at farmer’s markets or from local farmers. 

Food Variety/Food Education

 “Kids eat what adults eat.” There are no kids’ menus, or making a kid mac and cheese and mom and dad eating something different. If a kid didn’t eat, they went hungry (I was raised this way). 

In fact, the kids ended up eating everything from liver to beets without any fuss, but it was up to the parents to introduce their kids to hundreds of different foods before starting school. At school, if a kid didn’t eat their lunch they went hungry and/or were ostracized. So it was basically social suicide for a kid to raise a fuss over vegetables, and no parent would ever want to put their kid in that situation

What does this mean for you? Most of you probably didn’t grow up eating a wide variety of foods. In the book, it was said that you need to try a food seven different times before you can say you don’t like something. Most people will give up on something after the first taste.

On top of that, your taste buds are always changing. The average lifespan of your taste buds is 10 days, and everytime the cells will come back slightly different, slightly changing your taste preferences. 

This is one reason why taste can be “learned.” I used to hate bitter things, now my favorite drink is a negroni and I love radicchio. Key points for you to take away, introducing new foods into your diet might take some trial and error. And when dealing with family, most people need to try a food a few times before liking it. 

(example: my wife hates liver and I’ve been sneaking it into different meals to try and get her to eat it. What works for us is: pate, scrapple, liverwurst, and chicken livers flash fried in duck fat with a fruit compote on top. It took me many tries to figure out the last one)

Home-Cooked Meals

 This reiterates Michael Pollan’s quote, “You can eat anything you want. There is just one rule, make it yourself.” 

In the past month, I’ve had a few conversations with clients who have had great results. What’s the common theme? While there are many, one big one was eating out less and cooking at home more. 

When you take charge, you’re in control of the quality and portion sizes. There is nothing wrong with going out every once in awhile to eat, but the majority of your meals should be at home. If you don’t know how to cook start with some easy cookbooks. 

Biggest issue is people tell me time. I get it, coming home tired and hungry and the last thing you want to do is make something. So, one solution is to get an Instant Pot. You can literally throw frozen meat into it and have a meal ready in about an hour. 

Another solution is to buy a bunch of cheap freezer-safe microwave-safe bpa-free meal prep containers and make a bunch of meals. Then, those nights you don’t feel like cooking, you can pull them out, heat them up, and a healthy meal is ready to go. 

Let’s wrap this up now, there are lots of other take aways from the book, but you’re going to have to read it (or listen to it) to get them. I’m not saying that France is better than America here, our cultures are very different and their cultural traditions and taboos don’t necessarily mesh with ours.

But we should consider what we can take away from them to help improve our health and wellbeing since they do seem to be kicking out butt in that department while not giving up the wine, cheese, and chocolate. 

Many of the points the author makes in this book are also supported by Precision Nutrition (the nutrition organization Jeff and I are both certified under) and the Weston A. Price Foundation (the organization I support)

To sum things up, eat a wide variety of seasonal foods, learn to cook them, eat them with friends and family, and you don’t have to remove your favorite foods from your diet as long as you learn the correct portions of those foods. 

Note, since the book was written, obesity rates have climbed in France. The blame for this comes from more fast food, snacking, and their food culture/traditions eroding. While they are still way below America (America is about twice the obesity rates of France), the current rates of obesity are double that of the study I looked at in the last email.