Slim chance of being fat

Inside the French Paradox: how to eat your cake and stay healthy and lean


For the French, food is more about sensory pleasure than about filling up the tummy.
For the French, food is more about sensory pleasure than about filling up the tummy.

Can you have decadent desserts, fat-loaded cheeses, buttery croissants, juicy red meats, heady wine and still be stylishly slim? Can you sin and be thin? Every rational bone in my body—and a lifetime of scolding from cholesterol-phobic doctors and saturated-fat naysayers—says an emphatic no. So, on holiday in France, I watch in utter fascination, for the French seem to have mastered the art of indulging without bulging. And here’s the kicker: All their measures of good health, especially heart health, are one of the best in the world.

Of course, there is much that has been written about this phenomenon—there’s even a term for it, the French paradox—and there is a ton of medical research on the subject, but no one seems to have solved the mystery in a satisfying way. Theories abound—it is element X in the wine that does it, it is element Y in the cheese that does it—but no one seems to know for sure. What I do know is that I lived life the French way for 10 days and did not put on a gram of weight—in fact, I came back home a modest kilogram lighter. Here are three of my observations/learnings about what the French do differently from us Indians.

One, compared to the modern Indian “diet-friendly” kitchen—where we take it easy on oil and ghee—the French food we ate had a lot more fat. Salads were dressed generously in olive oil. I had a lot of burrata—rich and creamy—as a starter. In addition, there was almost always a cheese course in which you chose four-five kinds of cheese from an amazing array. Dessert is a must, and they are not shy about using butter and cream in it. I am vegetarian and skipped the meats, but, typically, the main course is lamb or beef, and no one seems to be worried about the fat in it—of course, a variety of fish, and indeed exotic stuff like rabbit and pigeon, featured regularly on the menu. My takeaway: The French eat fat in a guilt-free manner, and that includes the much maligned saturated fats in meat, cheese, butter. Perhaps one needs to look afresh at the role of fat in our diet.

Two, no second helpings, ever. Eating at a friend’s home—we began with a glass of champagne and a variety of nibbles, then moved to the table and enjoyed a delicious home-cooked three-course meal accompanied by wine—I couldn’t resist asking what keeps the French so slim and healthy. The consensus around the table was that as against India, where all the food is kept in the middle and second or even third helpings are encouraged, the French do the opposite—they stop at one. Portion sizes are moderate to begin with, and since you can’t have seconds, the quantum of food is regulated. When you leave the table, you are satisfied, but you don’t have that overstuffed feeling that comes after a hearty Indian meal. My takeaway: Indian meals are “unlimited” and you may not even know how much you have eaten. French meals are by design “limited”.

Three, for the French, food is more about sensory pleasure than about filling up the tummy. We ate in restaurants where we gasped with delight at the exquisite first spoonful—there’s a buzzing food culture; chefs are innovating and experimenting, and their creations are no less than art. Michelin-star restaurants are scattered all over the country, tucked away unexpectedly in tiny villages. Dishes are presented with a whimsical sense of humour—a solitary oyster sitting on top of a tangle of seaweed, or a little scoop of red berry sorbet served on a giant block of ice. The ingredients are so fresh and bursting with flavour—for example, a salad of simple green leaves with generous shavings of truffle—that you are transported to culinary heaven. Meals are served in an unhurried fashion, course by course, allowing you the space to savour each dish. There is a very strong sense of what goes with what and, equally, what doesn’t. For example, we invited a French friend for dinner at a restaurant, and he was visibly agitated when the wine we suggested was “not in harmony” with the meal; he calmed down only when it was changed. My takeaway: When you focus on pleasure, when your senses are alive to every flavour and note, then you are not likely to stuff yourself silly with huge quantities of food or alcohol.

And then, just as we were leaving France, I bought a packet of cookies, and there on the back of the packet it asked, “What’s our big secret to la vie en rose?” The answer is rather simple, similar to what your grandma might have told you: “1) Eat but not too much, 2) of everything, 3) drink water, 4) prance about. That’s all.”

Maybe it takes a company that makes cakes to tell you how to have your cake and eat it too.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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