Why Don't French People Get Fat?

Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

There are a lot of stereotypes about French people that us Americans throw around all willy-nilly: they make dope food, are unabashedly romantic, wear berets, carry baguettes, and also, are skinny. At least four of those five characteristics are incontestably true (try it! try to contest it!), but it’s the last one that is perhaps the most compelling to a weight-conscious American.

I lived in France with a French family for several months. During this time I ate baguette sandwiches with butter and cheese, one thousand croissants, and chocolate after every meal, every day. I got a little fat, but not nearly as fat as you’d anticipate! And I’m certain my meager weight gain was due to the French style of eating. I’m no expert, but these are the guidelines I observed my family and friends following to stay svelte.

Flickr/Steve Evans

Eating clean is crucial

Access to fresh produce markets, lots of home-cooking, and actual food production laws and regulations that just don’t exist here in America make the French diet, in France, a lot easier to adhere to. Mostly everything else I list stems from the natural biological body regulation that comes when you avoid hormone/antibiotic-riddled meat and dairy, GMO products, added salts and sugars, and chemical-laden processed low-fat and artificially sweetened foods. Those things mess with your brain chemistry and sometimes make it near impossible to say no.

Balance, people

Eat heavy one meal, eat light the next. Overdo it with the fondue? Counter it with veggie soup the next day.

Their bodies tell them when they're full

Because of that eating clean bit, Frenchies are able to naturally regulate their intake internally. But French portions are moderated by external cues, too, like tableware that is just straight-up smaller than American tableware. An American morning drink of orange juice can run practically four times the size of a French glass of orange juice simply because the glass is bigger. You know what has a lot of calories? Orange juice. You know what makes you fat? Calories.

Flickr/Nacho Rascón

France has four meals a day, no exceptions

And in-between snacking is highly discouraged. A small breakfast -- usually bread with butter and jam or Nutella, a bowl (in a bowl half the size of an American bowl) of cereal with milk, or a small yogurt, with a glass (a small glass!) of orange juice -- is followed by a larger lunch (dessert and coffee included) only a few hours later.

Next up is “le goûter,” the mid-afternoon snack usually between 4 and 6pm. This staves off hunger caused by the impossibly long break between lunch and dinnertime.

Dinner, a shared affair not had standing alone over the kitchen sink because you’re just too tired to cook is often a light soup, salad, or fruit starter followed by anything you deem acceptable for dinner, because French people's food is considerably more variable than just brie and baguette, despite popular opinion.

Dessert is served directly after the main dish -- a yogurt and a piece of fruit often suffices -- but more often than not there will be some kind of cake as well, and occasionally cheese. Though a cheese plate is hardly present at every meal. When it’s all over, it’s over. No more food until the next morning, which gives your body about a 12 hour gap to reboot before you start the process over again.

French people are regular folks

Espresso, with its laxative properties, is typical after lunch, and dessert is often a piece of fibrous fruit and/or a yogurt. Fiber and probiotics are critical to proper digestion, duh.

All meals and foods are treated with the same reverence

Because food culture is so almighty in France, no one meal or food item is considered an “indulgence” and thus something to feel guilty about. Americans often “allow” themselves to eat something special, which does nothing more than glorify a certain food and encourage overeating when it’s made available. Indulgence isn’t indulgence if you just always indulge. Dessert doesn’t feel so important if you can just have it next time.

Additionally, because dessert isn’t an afterthought, French people eat in anticipation of finishing the meal with something sweet, which means they don’t overeat the main. Though if you do overdo it, maybe lay off the cream for a day or two.

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Carrie Dennis is Thrillist's National Food and Drink Editor and is a certified Francophile. Follow her on Twitter: @carrriedennnis.