by Olivia Hamilton
If you ask Americans what food people eat in France, you’ll most likely get a response including baguettes and cheese. But having traveled France extensively, and having lived with French families, I know that the French diet is far more than baguettes and cheese. I also think it’s a much better approach to eating than the approach we take in America.
I’ve lived twice in France with French families, and once at an academic summer camp at a monastery where French nuns cooked our meals. While a baguette was often present during meals, it was not the primary food, and neither was cheese. With my first home-stay family, we lived close to a market and ate large amounts of fruit, many tomatoes and chicken or fish. Once a week, there would be a decadent meal, like gratin dauphinois (potatoes cooked in cream), but that was a rarity. Most of our meals consisted of fresh produce and protein, with a few slices of baguette.
With my second family, my home-stay mother was blind and unable to cook everything. However, we would still eat fresh rotisserie chickens from the farmer’s market and her daughter would help cook things like lentils and ratatouille. Again, we ate a lot of vegetables and fruit, and would end dinner with a small portion of cheese. It was a balanced, fresh and mostly healthy diet.
Life at the monastery was a bit different, as the nuns cooked more American and British meals for the primarily American and British students. However, always present in our meals were vegetarian options, fresh apricots from their garden, and usually some type of chicken. While breakfast often consisted of a baguette with butter, the other meals were balanced and fresh.
There is no one “French diet,” and the food consumed across France differs greatly with the region. But I can’t help but think that the French have a much better method of approaching food than Americans. Food with my home-stay families was effortless; our meals consisted of whatever was fresh, local and generally easy to make. Vegetables played a large role in these meals, and bread and cheeses were also consumed, but in smaller quantities. Food was enjoyed and appreciated, not feared and restricted.
In America, we often go to extremes in order to be “healthy.” Look through any online food blog or health magazine, and you’ll find reasons why the paleo diet is the healthiest, or why everyone should be vegan; you’ll find juice cleanse recommendations and methods of cutting out all sugar from your diet. These extreme ways of eating focus on depriving yourself of certain food groups, and while they work for some, for others they develop unhealthy eating habits and vicious cycles of fad dieting. With more than two-thirds of adults in America classified as overweight or obese according to the National Institute of Health, it does not seem like this approach to food is working.
I am sure there are people in France who follow these methods of eating. However, I have yet to find one. None of the families or nuns I stayed with in France were unhealthy or overweight, and they ate dairy, sugar, meat, carbohydrates, and all the other foods Americans like to avoid. In fact, only one in eight adults in France is obese, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Diets in France are not perfect, but they center around an appreciation and enjoyment of food. No food was restricted or off limits like they often are in America; these foods were consumed in small quantities and were part of a larger, balanced approach to eating.
One of my friends from my time at the monastery was a co-captain of her field hockey team at a boarding school. She was worried about maintaining her level of fitness and her weight. For the first few days in France, she complained about how difficult it was to eat healthily in France; mainly, how hard it was to avoid bread, dairy and meat. But after our first few days, when she began to enjoy a few slices of a baguette at breakfast, an occasional croissant, and some cheese after dinner, she stopped complaining and was happy. By the end of our trip, her mile time was no slower, and she had not gained any weight. But she did seem much happier, and far less obsessed, with what she ate.
Overall, the “French diet” focuses on moderation. Butter, sugar and other unhealthy foods are used in cooking, but they are not consumed in every meal or every day. In France, I found greater enjoyment in what I ate, as foods were mostly fresh and healthy, and decadent meals and desserts were consumed infrequently and enjoyed. With lower rates of obesity in France than America, I think this approach to eating is more effective. But would we be willing to try it ourselves?