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What We Can Learn From The French

If there’s a country and culture that is universally admired and despised somehow at the same time, it’s France.

French is my first language, and most Americans I meet confess to having taken French in high school. They seem really proud of the fact, even though they couldn’t order an orange juice in Paris to save their lives.

But they took French. Not Spanish, but French. It’s strange because Spanish is practically the second language of the United States, yet most Americans would rather learn French.

If you ask an American what is one city they would like to visit before they die, you can bet that the vast majority would answer, “Paris”.

Read an American novel and you’ll be surprised how often the writer likes to boast his knowledge of French culture by sprinkling a few French expressions here and there, without bothering to translate them, implying that he probably speaks fluent French (even though he doesn’t).

France is THE number one most visited country in the world by tourists. And the Eiffel Tower is the most visited building in the world.

Something like 30 to 40% of the English vocabulary comes from French.

It’s even claimed that they invented modern gourmet cuisine as we know it today.

At the same time, the French people catch a bit of a bad reputation. It’s said that their manners could use a bit of an improvement, and unless you are speaking perfect French to them, they’ll turn their nose up at you and about their way.

Are these things actually true however?

When it comes to diet and nutrition, it’s said that French people eat a diet of rich, fatty foods (buttered croissants, cheeses, meats, etc.) yet are actually thinner and healthier than much of the rest of the world.

Is it the wine that’s protecting them? Maybe we were wrong all along about fatty foods causing heart disease?

Why French People Stay Thin

It is true, French people are much slimmer than Americans overall. I’ve traveled all around the US and spent time in France and can confirm this from my experiences too.

Yet, they eat some of the most decadent, fatty foods known to mankind, and they do so on a regular basis.

I’m talking about butter in everything: sauces, croissants, meat… everything contains a ridiculous amount of fat, enough to make any nutritionist cringe.

They have hundreds of types of cheese, and they love to talk about them. Being vegan here is a laughable idea, as almost no traditional meal is vegan.

The wine there is dirt cheap, being taxed less than most countries in the world. And French people definitely appreciate their wine!

With all that fattening food, you’d expect the French to be at least fatter than Americans, but the contrary is quite true. Obesity rates are less than 10% there, compared to 30% in the US.

The rates of deaths by heart disease are also almost a third lower in France than that in the US too.

Cancer rates are even lower, but not dramatically so.

Qu’est-ce qu’il se passe!? (What is going on!?)

Some have said that the reason French people stay relatively healthier is that they drink so much wine, and wine somehow protects them and “cleanse their arteries”.

There’s a lot of debate on whether or not the alcohol that the French drink (or anyone else for that matter) is actually doing them any good, but I’m still willing to say that I’m doubtful that it’s the wine that’s France’s saving grace.

What is clear now is that French people stay slimmer and have less heart disease because they eat less in general than most other Westernized countries, and they care more about what they eat.

In French, the word for lunch literally means “breakfast” because it used to be the first meal of the day.

However, when people started eating a little something in the morning, they called that meal “little breakfast” (petit déjeuner).

The average breakfast in France is still pretty light. Maybe a croissant with some coffee, but many people skip it entirely.

Lunch is a big thing. They take their lunches seriously, often taking 2 hours or more to eat and chat.

Dinner is traditionally simple, and many smart French people eat almost nothing for dinner — maybe some fruit and yogurt. However, it’s becoming popular to have bigger dinners nowadays.

My other theory on the French Paradox is the love of food that people have here.
People still like to shop like in the old days, buying their bread at the boulangerie (baker), their produce at the fruit shop or the market, their meat at the butcher, and so on.

Food is a big topic of conversation, and don’t be surprised if you get caught in a conversation with a French person where they spend half an hour to describe their particular method for picking the best wild mushrooms, or making a particular recipe.

Because of this obsession for food, they also tend to care a lot more about food quality, by buying local products they can trust, and even harvesting and growing produce themselves as much as possible.

Also, the SOCIAL aspect of life is extremely important here.

People here tend to spend more time together. When they eat, it’s not the same rushed experience you would get at a fast-food restaurant or your typical café most places back in the west.

Taking two hours to enjoy your lunch with your friends will certainly enhance your digestion, as opposed to angrily and hurriedly eating a burger alone in the twenty terrible minutes most people get on their lunch break.

In the end, it’s nothing magical that makes French people slimmer and a bit healthier, in spite of all that fattening food.

It’s a combination of:

  • Healthy social lives
  • Reasonable food quantities
  • Placing an importance on food quality

*Are French People Truly Healthy?*

In spite of everything I have said, we should not conclude that French people have found the secret to a good life or the fountain of youth by eating buttered croissants and red wine all afternoon.

Cancer rates are almost as high there as they are in North America. The medical industry still thrives, and all the ailments that are common in Western countries are still common there, but the situation is not as out of control as it is in the USA…at least for now.
So, it’s likely there isn’t some sort of magical concoction or combination of things that protect the French, it’s likely just the result of living an overall healthier lifestyle, something we all can do yet rarely take the time for.

Here are some final points of advice that you can use to improve your diet and health no matter where you are:

  • Spend more time to enjoy your meals, and in good company.
  • Make your meals look beautiful in order to enhance the appreciation of the whole experience, which can even improve digestion.
  • Care about what you eat. Discover as many new foods as you can, and become an expert on what you know.
  • Grow as much of your own food as you can, or buy from local farmers in your area.

Let us know your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!



Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets.