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The Lean Plate Club: Sally Squires

Eating Like a Frenchwoman

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page HE01

The latest diet book to climb the bestseller lists is written not by a physician, nutrition researcher or registered dietitian but by the CEO of a champagne company.

"French Women Don't Get Fat" (Knopf; $22) is aimed at those who have slipped out of their Zones, "missed the flight to South Beach or accidentally let a carb pass" their lips, according to its book jacket.

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Subtitled "The Secret of Eating for Pleasure," the slim volume is written by Mireille Guiliano, a 58-year-old Frenchwoman. She divides her time between apartments in Manhattan and Paris and told the New York Times that her husband cooks her a different breakfast daily because she hates boredom. They have no children.

The title "is a nice hook," said physician David Heber, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, and himself the author of several diet books. "But it's not really true that French women don't get fat." According to the London-based International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), France may be getting fat less quickly than the United States, but obesity and overweight rates are climbing there, as they are worldwide. Nearly 25 percent of Frenchwomen are overweight and 11 percent are obese, as defined by the standard body mass index measures (25 or higher for overweight, 30 or above for obesity). In the United States, about 33 percent of women are obese.

Further evidence that the French are not immune from weight problems is that "childhood obesity rates in France are skyrocketing, even in the . . . chicest part of Paris," said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle, who is conducting several obesity studies of French children. "And it's worse in other areas of Paris and in rural France."

While Guiliano concedes that it's possible to overeat in France, she contends that huge portion sizes, fast food and overly processed fare have helped trigger weight problems in the States. As a college student in Paris, she says, she ballooned on pastries -- but only after she had first added unwanted pounds as a high school exchange student in Massachusetts, where she noshed nonstop on bagels and potato chips.

Experts note that weight gain while abroad is not unique to visitors to the U.S. "I got fat, too, when I went to Europe at the same age," said Penn State professor of nutrition Barbara Rolls, author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan" (HarperCollins). "I packed on the pounds in France, where we would have wonderful picnics with bread and cheese and wine. And I lost the weight when I came back to the U.S."

With that in mind, here are a few potentially useful messages found in "French Women Don't Get Fat." Some will sound familiar, whichever side of the Atlantic you call home:

Track what you eat. Guiliano advises keeping three weeks of food records without tallying calories. It's merely meant to show patterns of food intake so you can see where there is room for improvement. Studies show that recording what you eat is a powerful tool to increase awareness of intake, an important step toward changing habits.

Cook more from scratch. Experts agree this is a good way to control what you eat. The book includes a number of recipes, from asparagus flan and croissants to salad of duck a l'orange that are likely best prepared on weekends for those with busy weekday schedules. (Note also that Guiliano tells the New York Times she usually dines out with clients during the week.) Pay close attention to suggested serving sizes, since some recipes contain a fair amount of butter and sodium.

Sip soup. Guiliano recommends jump-starting weight-loss efforts with a "tough weekend." Basically, it's a mini-fast in which she advises sipping a cup of homemade leek broth every two to three hours from Saturday morning until dinner Sunday. For meals during that period, she says, eat only chopped leeks from the soup, drizzled with a "few drops of extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice." On Sunday night, dine on four to six ounces of meat or fish, two vegetables steamed with a little butter or olive oil and a piece of fruit.

Rolls's research shows that soup and other high-volume foods help fool the brain and stomach into feeling full on fewer calories. "Two days [of semi-fasting] probably won't do any harm," she said. "But it seems that most people dieting these days have probably had lots of experience in losing weight. They need to learn that in the long run, these kinds of short fixes are not what they need to think of. . . . And it seems counter to the rest of what Guiliano is saying, which is to enjoy and eat foods in moderation."

Engage in ritual dining. The French and many other Europeans take time to eat meals at a table, without distractions such as television. Lunch is usually the largest meal of the day, and few people eat at their desks.

Make vegetables a main course. Drewnowski said the French have an almost "spiritual connection" to vegetables, especially leeks, asparagus, carrots and tomatoes. "Homemade vegetable soup is the touchstone of home cooking," he said. "Having dinner of soup with a slice of bread, cheese and a salad is perfectly acceptable."

Walk. It's a major activity in Paris. While Americans may have fewer romantic, winding streets to stroll, there are plenty of opportunities to move the feet more, no matter where you live. •

Share Your Tips or ask questions about healthy nutrition and activity when Sally Squires hosts the Lean Plate Club online chat, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. today, on www.washingtonpost.com. Can't join live? E-mail leanplateclub@washpost.comanytime. To learn more, and subscribe to our free e-newsletter, visit www.leanplateclub.com

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