The French Diet and How the French Stay Thin

Friends enjoying meal in cafe, cropped
PhotoAlto / Michele Constantini / Getty Images

The French eat rich foods and drink lots of wine. So why are they so thin and fit? Just what is the secret to the French paradox? 

Here are some theories about why the French diet works.

A Reverence for Food

First and foremost, the French hold food sacred. While this immediately sounds like a recipe for weight gain, it isn't. Think about it. Instead of inhaling a burger in two minutes flat, they enjoy their food. They savor it. So what if dinner takes three hours? The French have feasts that would put an American Thanksgiving to shame on a regular basis. The French diet has very little to do with the actual word "diet."

Americans continuously diet, yet the U.S. obesity rate keeps climbing. That is because Americans are learning to hate food more and more, to see it is either something drab to suffer through or something indulgent they should not really feel good about. Just remember to enjoy every bite and it will make the world of difference.

Take It Slow Instead of Taking Out!

To enjoy your food, you must focus on it and allow time for it. In France, fast food and take out are still not the norm. While the French are slowly adding take-out (called "a emporter" in French), the French as a culture set aside a time and place for food. It is much more customary to eat food sitting at a cafe or at home, minus the rush.

Size Matters

One of the biggest differences is the sheer massive size of meals in the U.S. The French may eat food that would never qualify under a Weight Watchers diet, but their portion size is much smaller. They take their time with each bite, so they are able to realize they are full after eating far less. Typical restaurant portion sizes in America in particular are astoundingly immense.

French TV Sucks

Some may disagree, but French TV is not great. That can be bad, to be sure, but it has positive aspects and contributes to the French diet mystery. In America, so many households and so many days revolve around the TV. In France, the people instead walk to the market, and then the baker. It is so much easier to go outside and just do something instead of rotting on the couch. And the French do not have TV dinners; they don't even have the TV on during the sacred hours of meals.

Exercise That Is (ahem) Fun

The French love love. According to a survey by the Durex brand of condoms, French people have more sex encounters annually than Americans. How many calories does it burn?

It's Easy to Be Active

The French are not lazy about the little things. You see French people taking the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. The little things that Americans do to make life easier add up to a huge deficit in activity. French cities are also set up so it is easy to walk everywhere, with many of their historic centers pedestrianized. 

In America, the suburbs are rife with strip malls, forcing people to drive to every stop. In fact, the French typically shop at a variety of stores (one baker for the best baguettes, a butcher shop for meat, a market for basics, and perhaps a pastry shop for desserts). They do have big supermarkets (such as Carrefour), and they do drive to them, often way out of town, but they will shop in town as well, and often on a daily basis. 

Get Fresh!

In the French diet, fresh ingredients, locally grown produce and quality ingredients are the norm. It is not typical to eat so much processed food in France and there is an active dislike of much-processed food.

Americanization of France

Sadly, the very French diet and culture that keeps the people of this country fit are being slowly eroded by an invasion of American culture. Starbucks and McDonald's are in many big towns, but they are often in tucked-away places.

The Biggest Loser

The hit show, The Biggest Loser, has probably brought more attention to the obesity problem in the U.S. Even though this show never made a single mention of the French diet, the participants in the Biggest Loser were taught some key elements: portion control, using fresh ingredients and working activity into their daily diets.

French Cuisine is UNESCO rated 

And if you doubt the importance of food in France, UNESCO made French gastronomy a “social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups”. UNESCO put the multi-course gastronomic meal in France with its rites and presentation on to the "world intangible heritage list" which includes Mexico's Day of the Dead Festival. It joins 41 other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France.

More about French Food, Restaurants and Cooking

Top Food Destinations in France

Was this page helpful?