(Editor’s note: This post about the differences in food and eating habits in France and in American originally was published on “The American in Paris” blog. It’s reposted here with the permission.)
I’ve mentioned over the years that I lost weight when I moved to France, but I’ve never explained precisely how. The truth is, it took me a while to figure it out, because “weight loss” wasn’t even on my radar when I moved here.
When I moved to France in 2013 I was heavier than I had been in my undergraduate days more than a decade earlier and definitely heavier than the leanest I’d ever been, when I graduated from boot camp with the United States Marine Corps. But that weight gain happened so gradually that I really hadn’t noticed it. A pound or two per year over years adds up, it seems. Three months into my time living in France, twelve of those pounds had evaporated. Turns out that with all the other things I had going on in my new country, I hadn’t really noticed, as my first clue was when I went to OFII and they called out a weight when I stepped on the scale that didn’t seem right. I stepped on it again to make sure, and yes, the equivalent of 12 pounds had disappeared.
Over the next three months another eight would go, mostly without my notice, though clothes that I had formerly “grown into” fit properly again, and I had to get a couple suits altered that had accommodated the “old Stephen.”
So, given that I didn’t go on a diet when I moved here, and in fact, I drink more wine, cook with more duck fat and butter, eat more cheese, more bread, more pastry, more desserts than I’ve ever eaten in my life, something else was influencing these changes.
American portion sizes are unbelievable. Americans are obsessed with paying low prices for food (but we have no problem spending a lot on cars and firearms) and this low price obsession also translates into wanting “good value for money” when we eat out. If a big plate of food comes out and you don’t finish it, we have a culture of taking home leftovers and feeling even better about our night out (“free” meal for the next day).
We are also taught culturally that you should finish everything on your plate, because to do otherwise would be ungrateful. While part of me accepts part of that sentiment, the culture then has to own that it should put a reasonable portion on the plate, not a portion that in France would easily serve two, sometimes three people.
We also eat our food in America very quickly, seeing mealtimes as less of an opportunity to relax and catch up on life and more of a tiresome task that has to be “accomplished” so we can move on to what really matters, which is watching Netflix or texting friends.
It doesn’t take a nutritionist to know that eating a lot of food quickly not only isn’t great for digestion, but expands your stomach to accept this as “normal” and then trains you to shovel more food into it in order to feel “full.”
In France we eat more slowly, so the stomach has enough time to send the message to the brain saying, “I’m full.”
In France the portion sizes are smaller, so you normally finish a meal content, not “in pain” because you “ate too much.”
In France meals aren’t tiresome tasks to get dispose of efficiently, they are simple ways to celebrate seasonal pleasures.
Food Supply Chain
But even if you solve the portion size problem in America (an enormous, pun intended, cultural hurdle), you now are dealing with a Frankenfood-infected food supply chain. If you’ve read Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” you know that as one of the largest buyers of beef, chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes in America, McDonald’s indirectly decides what the rest of us eat, even if you don’t eat at the Golden Arches. Farmers aren’t going to grow some lettuce for consumers and use another field for the lettuce they sell to McDo, as it’s known in France. The industrial choices that McDonald’s makes bleeds down into the supermarkets and consumers reach for produce that was genetically designed for long transportation and for shelf appeal.
Those industrial foods necessarily taste blander (one of the effects chronicled in Mark Schatzker’s aptly-named “The Dorito Effect“) and as a result Americans drown their sad, bland food in condiments, usually ranch dressing or hot sauce (and sometimes, both).
On that point, you’ll notice something curious if you sit down with some Americans for meals. When their food arrives, they immediately add these condiments along with salt, pepper, etc. Americans generally aren’t interested in how the food tastes on its own.
That doesn’t matter.
What matters is that they make the food taste like what they want it to taste like, which is apparently ranch and hot sauce flavored, much like the snack food that they eat incessantly.
In France seasonality is valued and celebrated, and when foods are in season you see them everywhere, from the farmer’s markets to the restaurant menus.
In France, the Big Snack Industrial Complex is making huge strides, but their “make potato chips taste like tomatoes and cheese” tricks are not yet wholly mainstream.
Speaking of snacking, that’s simply not done here. In America I snacked all the time, because it was culturally acceptable and facilitated. I often tell the story of being at a gas station in St. Louis around 11 at night and going in to pay for the gas and smelling this wonderful aroma of cinnamon rolls. No one has any business having a cinnamon roll that late at night, no matter how wonderful it might be. But culturally that’s acceptable, so we all do it.
In France, it’s not culturally acceptable for adults to snack, so it’s not done. Kids normally get a gouter around 4 p.m., but as they get older this custom goes away. If you read Pamela Druckerman’s insightful “Bringing Up Bebé,” you’ll find that this programming happens from infancy: babies are fed at set times, not “anytime they feel hungry.”
In France you don’t snack, because that would imply you were hungry, but you’re not hungry, because you are content and full from your last, leisured meal.
In France obesity is an oddity, causing you to stand out, and hence less culturally acceptable.
In France, one snack is allowed to kids per day, and ceasing to take this snack is part of their passage to adulthood.
This last benefit is Paris-specific, because once you leave the capital, or other towns like Lyon, Bordeaux, and Nantes, that have wonderful public transportation, you probably will own a car. By contrast, car ownership is necessary for survival for the vast majority of Americans.
Indeed, whenever I have visited America in the past 10 years the absurdity of this car obsession has been driven home to me as I run errands and watch my fellow Americans derive the only exercise of their day getting out of their car and going in and out of whatever buildings they visit.
The more disciplined ones may then drive to a building where they use a machine to run to nowhere, then get back in a vehicle to drive back to their home. There is simply no “casual exercise” in the American way of life. A car-dominated society leads to a culture that only exercises by choice, not by necessity.
Not so for the millions of people who live and work in Paris. The overwhelming majority don’t own a car, and if they do, they don’t use it for their daily commute, because then they’d have to deal with traffic and parking, issues that only continue to get worse for drivers as Mayor Anne Hidalgo edges Paris into the Top-5 of bike cities worldwide. Instead, commuters hop onto their world-class public transportation network after having parked their car at one of those stations, and sleep, read, listen to music, watch a series or a movie, or occasionally, talk on the phone or with each other. They then have to walk upstairs, downstairs, across stations, across streets. My average day living in Paris (and I didn’t even have a commute!) always had a minimum of 5 kilometers of walking, and many days was easily 10 kilometers.
Walking a 10k every day means you don’t need a gym membership. It also means that you, like your ancestors before you, didn’t need to do artificial exercises in order to stay “in shape.” Those ancestors did so simply by living their daily lives. Now, we’re not ploughing fields or working in the mines, but do you know what sort of weight loss revolution would happen in America if we had designed our cities and lives so that we walked even 3 kilometers a day, not for “fitness” but just to get about our days?
Instead we chose the nightmare chronicled by James Howard Kunstler in “Home from Nowhere” in which Americans drive by strip malls inhabited by Weight Watchers and Domino’s Pizza (sometimes next to each other) and then obsess over the next diet fad, sure that this time, it’ll be different.
In Paris, being outside and in sunshine and green space is coveted.
In Paris, parks are not places you drive to, but parts of your neighborhood.
In Paris, fitness isn’t something you have to pay a gym for, it’s just something you do every day by accident.
So, the cultural reasons why I gained those twenty pounds over the years while living in America are just as valid as the cultural reasons why I lost them all and am now at my “natural weight” here in France.
Culture is a great molder of minds and hearts and bodies. Those cultures that have positive food cultures have positive health outcomes (it’s not solely genetics that leads to the Japanese — and Okinawans specifically — living so long). Those cultures that have dire food cultures have negative health outcomes. While my story is only my own and is hardly scientific research, it only takes a set of eyes to confirm that at least as far as food goes, we’re killing ourselves in America.
And in France, we’re not.
About the author:
Singaporean-born American Stephen Heiner lived in Paris from 2013 to 2021 after living in Asia and the United States for most of his life. While he has an undergraduate degree in literature, he also has an MBA, and he’s very much the man who enjoys studying financial statements as much as he enjoys reading essays by G.K. Chesterton or James Howard Kunstler.
He visits his family in the U.S. and Singapore each year, but in the meantime enjoys his dream city, which he finally had a chance to move to after selling a company he built over a number of years.
You can find him on twitter and instagram @stephenheiner.
You can also follow his immigration journey on The American in Paris blog, where Stephen also offers consulting to those interested in relocating to, and/or making a life in, France.
You can read more of Stephen’s work here in Dispatches’ archives,