If you've never heard the term "French paradox", it's used to refer to the concept that French people, who are as a rule slim and svelte, seem to eat whatever they want: tons of white bread, cheese, butter, bacon, and far too much dessert for their own good. Everything from flavonoids in red wine to climate has been used to explain it.
Well, I just spent three weeks or so in France, and in that time I managed to drop a pants size. I wasn't exactly watching what I eat ("Four cheeses, dripping with milkfat? Don't mind if I do!"), and I drank like a small fish between the amazing wine and my own private Waterloo of pastis, so what happened?
1. Not snacking between meals.
French people don't do it. Sure, they might sneak a crêpe or a waffle here and there, and no baguette makes it home from the boulangerie without the protruding end being ripped off and consumed, but the concept of stopping at a fast-food restaurant for a "Fourthmeal" is totally alien to the French.
Filtered coffee is nearly unheard of in France. Order un café and you will get a cup containing a single shot of espresso, with a packet of sugar and either a small biscuit or a tiny piece of chocolate posed on the saucer. Coffee in the morning, coffee mid-morning, coffee after lunch, maybe coffee mid-afternoon and coffee after dinner: four or five espressos at least go down the average Frenchman in the course of a twenty-four hour period. At that rate the metabolism must be whirring like a hummingbird.
3. Gas that costs $7.80 a US gallon.
That's not a typo. Converted from liters to US gallons and from euros to US dollars, the price of gasoline is anywhere from $7 to $8 a gallon. At that price it is cheaper to take public transportation, even between cities. French people, particularly city dwellers, do a LOT of walking. In addition, Paris and Lyon have widespread bicycle rental facilities; you swipe your transit card and you can rent a bike for a short period of time (free for the first hour in Lyon).
4. Not eating processed crap.
There's a surprising lack of processed junk eaten by French people. Sure, you can get Pringles and Diet Coke Coca-Cola Light in France, and they do get consumed, but sit down for a meal and your food is far more likely to have come from whole ingredients. High-fructose corn syrup is technically legal in France, but it's not subsidized and so most bakers use real sugar. It's not hard to imagine that a meal that started out as a duck and some potatoes and various vegetables might be better for you than industrially produced food.
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5. The 90-minute lunch.
French people savor their meals. As an American, it gets tiring to have 90-minute lunches (sixty to eat, and then 30 minutes for coffee afterwards) and 2-hour dinners, because we're used to eating on the go, walking down the sidewalk even. Eating slowly means you respond more appropriately to your body's "full" signals and stop eating sooner.
French people still smoke. A lot. Smoking was (rather controversially) banned in restaurants recently, but the cigarette is still a big part of life, whether a big fat American cig or one of those tiny-but-stinky Gauloises. Anyone who's ever gained ten or twenty pounds after giving up the cancer stick can attest to this one.