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Healthy Minds Healthy College

A French Wellness Lesson

June 17, 2012

For the last two weeks my morning ritual has been to walk up the narrow lane from our rented house in the French port town of Marseillan to the bakery, sometimes first strolling to the harbor to catch the sun rising over the Mediterranean. A short walk back home, I fill the French press with coffee and wait for the others to get up, the bread still warm. Next is a leisurely breakfast of goat cheese Brie (75% butter fat!) and confiture d’abricots (apricot jam) or mousse au canard (incredibly smooth duck liver pate) on a baguette or pavé au lin (artisanal flax bread), or perhaps a croissant or pain aux raisins,. And whether we settle on a medieval walled town, a twelfth-century abbey, or a trendy shopping district as our main destination, no French itinerary is complete without a lunch or dinner adventure. France is food country, and enjoying it is de rigueur.

Yet I was reading yesterday that despite a diet stuffed with cream, butter, cheese, wine, and foie gras (literally, fat liver), only 11% of French adults are obese (compared with 33% of us). The French also live longer and have lower death rates from coronary heart disease. They don’t diet and they don’t spend hours panting round the gym. Go figure!

So how do those alcohol-guzzling, croissant-munching gourmands manage to stay slim and healthy while we health-obsessed North Americans are comparatively fat and coronarilly challenged? Simple:

  1. Food for pleasure
    Not surprisingly, a recent study revealed that France is the country where food is the most associated with pleasure and the least with health (the US was the opposite). The French take their pleasures very seriously. Research confirms that they eat more slowly and enjoy their food more than we do. The French are in fact not gourmands (gluttons) but gourmets.
  2. Red wine
    Did you know that moderate alcohol drinkers live longer than abstainers or heavy drinkers? For the French, a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. Flavonoids, natural antioxidants found in red wine, are thought to promote health of the heart and blood vessels. As Louis Pasteur (the Frenchman we can thank for pasteurization) put it: “Wine is the healthiest and most hygienic of drinks.” King’s Head anyone?
  3. Smaller portions
    People tend to eat as much as is put in front of them, even when only mildly palatable. Research has shown that French portions are notably smaller than ours and that, although the French enjoy a wide variety of very rich foods, they still consume fewer calories. I can’t imagine finding a 32-oz (about a kilo) steak on a French menu like I did at a steak house in Dallas (I opted for the 9-oz “Lady’s Fillet”, with red wine, of course.).
  4. Eat fresh
    Granted, the 100-mile diet (167 km?) may be  a little easier to swing in the south of France than in Winnipeg. Not only can they grow just about anything down here, even the smallest French town will have an open-air market, a fromagerie for cheese, a boulangerie for bread, a boucherie for meat, a lingerie for lingering (ok, just kidding on the last one). Sure, markets and speciality food shops may be more time consuming and expensive, but what you get is usually far fresher and of better quality. I remember one restaurateur in Provence beaming as he explained that he didn’t even own a freezer.
  5. Real food
    Ever seen that old TV commercial: “This is soup just like my mother used to make. My mother used to make Campbell’s.”? The French eat fewer processed foods and cook (not just reheat) at home more than we do, taking the time to choose the right ingredients. Home cooking is the best way to reduce your intake of preservatives, salt, sugar, additives, artificial colours & flavours, trans-fats, and who-knows-what else. Our over-processing even spoils otherwise healthful choices. Take peanut butter, for example. Most commercial brands suck out all the peanut oil, substitute cheaper hydrogenated oils, add salt and sugar or other refined sweeteners, and then homogenize the lot so it won’t separate. Holy cacahuètes!
  6. No snacking
    The French tend to snack much less than we do. Instead, they try to eat more regularly. More substantial, richer foods have been shown to keep you satisfied longer, reducing that urge to snack. And less snacking on sweets and refined carbohydrates reduces our glycemic load and the risk of heart disease.
  7. Une carafe d’eau, svp!
    Research confirms that drinking a good amount of water daily suppresses appetite, is good for the heart (one study showed that increasing from 2 to 5 glasses per day reduced by 41% the likelihood of dying from a heart attack), boosts energy (even mild dehydration of as little as 1-2% of your body weight makes you feel tired), has good effects on your skin, aids digestion (and with fiber, cures constipation), helps the body flush out toxins and waste, and can reduce the risk of colon cancer by 45% and bladder cancer by 50%. One study showed that the French drink over three times the water that we do.
  8. Naturally active life
    Daily walking is part of the French lifestyle. Their streets are much more walker friendly and full of pedestrians. Higher population densities and the number of multi-storey old buildings with no elevator also make for a lot more stair climbing. The French, especially in cities, walk, cycle (like your rrrr…), or use public transportation much more than we do.
  9. Self-discipline
    It is true; the French deny themselves very little when it comes to food. But they also tend to eat very little of it: like a piece of dark chocolate after a meal rather than a big piece (or two) of cake. They know that denial isn’t healthy and favour moderation. And if they do slip into excess one day, they are more careful the next.

So, after my flight from Paris reaches Toronto and I am asked by a Canada Customs’ agent if I have anything to declare, I am tempted to say, “Why yes! I am going to adopt a more French lifestyle when I get back to Winnipeg and thoroughly enjoy my food!”Mille feuilles aux tomatesCanal du Garonne