Fitness Lessons from the French

What follows are merely musings after a recent trip from Toronto to Paris to visit friends and relatives. My company name, “The Belle Method” is partly inspired by my French heritage and it seemed à propos to share observations on French habits as they relate to fitness and lifestyle.

parisfood

Several years ago the release of a book entitled “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat” garnered lots of attention. Love it! French is très sexy. French is also paradoxical. They eat croissants, drink wine, love butter sauces and chocolate and are…skinny?

Here’s what I intuitively know contributes to the health and vitality of French women.

  • They walk more, bike more etc. Working out isn’t compartmentalized to gyms. In many cases, they don’t “workout” at all. Gasp! They just move their bodies more throughout the day because it’s built into their lifestyle. They haven’t failed if they haven’t made it to the gym that week.
  • They eat excellent quality food: the EU has some of the strictest policies limiting the use of GMOs, irradiated produce, food additives and hormones in meat. Food is higher in nutrients than the usual conventional fare in North America. Period.
  • French women take time to enjoy meals. It’s actually very difficult to get take-out. And you will be hard pressed to see anyone eating or drinking in a car. Yes you see the occasional fast-food/McDonalds in larger cities but I’m convinced these establishments are primarily busy because of the free Wi-Fi. For real. Taking time to savor your food is proven to increase levels of satiation in the brain, meaning you are satisfied with less. Another point for the Frenchies.
  • They don’t obsess over calories and fat. This is a similar case of enjoying food more and therefore being satisfied with less. If they want chocolate or cheese, they’ll have it. French women don’t suffer from the same tortured relationship with food as North Americans do. We have “guilty pleasures” and “cheat days.” French women are liberated: there’s no guilt. There’s just chocolat, and it’s a part of life to be enjoyed, regularly. Have you ever just wanted some cheese but instead you ate a whole bag of cheese flavoured rice cakes? (Confession: yup, that was yours truly in university before my enlightenment. I was also 15 lbs heavier then. No surprise there). There’s a better way. Ditch the deprivation and eat a little piece of what you want. It may seem impossible to eat “just a little piece”, but once your relationship with food becomes healthier, so too will your body. Your cravings will no longer hold such power over you! Truth bomb. I’ve lived it folks.

France still has its health issues, not the least of which is the country’s significantly higher smoking rate among women. Some might argue that fact alone could be the reason French women are thinner on average than in North America. I disagree, but it begs to be noted. Additionally, there is still a problem of obesity in France, however not remotely close to the rates we see in Canada and the US. In North America we live in a land of extremes with respect to fitness and food. Here we have a growing culture of super-buff paleo cross-fitters, raw foodists and gluten free vegan yogis contrasted with an arguably equally pervasive culture of all-you-can-eat rib buffets, supersized drive-thru meals and processed diet snack food. People here are either healthy and “in-shape”, or they are not. This dichotomy makes being fit and healthy feel unattainable for so many North Americans. You either succeed and you’re a chia-seed eating, yoga/gym-going Whole Foods shopper or you’re a chubby buffet lover with no willpower. There is a clear lack of middle ground.

Furthermore, our North American culture of polarizing health extremes perpetuates the need for “cutting out bad food” (again with the guilt)! We often diet by depriving ourselves of food that tastes good and replacing it with manufactured food products designed to taste good, but with fewer calories and fat. Jenny Craig anyone?

Impossible! (Read that with a French accent)

The biggest fitness lesson from the French is this: You can still be healthy and enjoy excellent decadent, real food. Butter over margarine folks. Real truffles over chocolate flavoured fat-free cookie snacks. Food isn’t something to be conquered. It’s something to be celebrated. Wine and croissants are part of enjoying life. Choose quality over quantity. Relax, slow down, savour and enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a “cheat day” – a notion completely foreign in French culture. Drink some wine in the park, but take your bike. Life is good, la vie est belle.

masi