The Simple Act of Eating
I read a book years back called Why French Women Never Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano. I was living in the U.S. at the time, and like many young women, had read every diet book known to man. Atkins, low carb, low fat/fat free, “the zone”, raw food, vegan, all juice. You name it. I tried it. I was never fat. At most, the "freshman 15" just made me more voluptuous. But I still felt that I was just one hot diet trend away from my perfect size.
Enter Why French Women Never Get Fat, which wasn’t a diet book at all but rather a guidebook for how most French (and Northern/Western Europeans in general) eat. There was nothing monumental about this book… No cut out x food, or eat only this, or do this very specific exercise routine in this exact order. Nothing like that. It was instead a common-sense approach to enjoying real food without guilt. Indulging on holidays, when out to dinner friends, or on vacation were part of the game because they are part of enjoying a full life. Rather than punishing oneself with hours at the gym or a 3 day liquid diet,Guiliano recommended taking the long bike route to work for the next few days, taking the stairs to ones’ office floor (even if there were 30 flights) for the next week, keeping to regular meals but sans the dessert or wine for the days following. Nothing catastrophically hard to do. This may seem common sense, sane and obvious to many people, but from a person who hadn’t had a healthy, normal relationship to my body or food since I was an adolescent, it was earth-shattering. But I wasn’t ready to embody it yet. Some seeds take time to take root.
I have lived in Europe now for over 5 years. I go on holiday to France every summer and I can confirm that French women are, indeed, not fat. Nor are men, children or even the elderly. This is not a distinctly French phenomenon. Germans, Italians, Spanish or northern Europeans in general are also rarely overweight, or at least not to the degree to which I see in my home country. This is of course an overgeneralization. And I am not trying to imply that French, or Europeans in general, have a perfect health-full diet.. Vegetable juices, plant-based food in general (especially in rural areas), and gut-healthy foods are hard to come by in many parts of Europe. And breads, cheese, milk and animal products, sweet cakes, and alcohol are often viewed as part of a daily diet rather than an occasional luxury. And, like the rest of the industrialized world, my European friends have also lengthened their work day to well past 6pm and often eat a large meal way too late at night andeat too little at lunch time.. big Ayurveda no-no’s…But still.. Europeans are not fat. Why is that?
Like many things these days, I filter this through the lens of Ayurveda. A few things I notice about how my French (and European) friends eat that lead to their smaller physiques are:
They eat 3 meals, at regular times. Meal spacing is hugely important in Ayurveda. And it is the normal way of doing things here in Europe too. No grabbing for the bag of almonds 2 hours after lunch, or the bag of chips in the car home from work, or the ice cream right before bed. Europeans eat their meals more or less at regular times every day. In Ayurveda, we recommend about 5 hours between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner and 12 hours between dinner and breaking fast the next day. When you eat at regular times, your digestive fire knows when it needs to turn on to digest and assimilate your food. It is efficient – which means less waste of energy and less impact on your waistline. Eating at irregular times, or snacking between meals, makes our bodies metabolize or burn the sugar in our blood. Spacing meals (the longer between meals the better) allows us to instead burn our fat. That’s a good thing. This is big, listen up: it isn’t entirely whatyou eat, but when you eat that is important to maintaining your ideal weight.
They eat real food. Anyone who has been on holiday in Europe has probably observed the difference in quality of food. The European market has far more regulations on preservatives, additives, growth hormones, nitrates, etc. and European consumers simply wouldn’t put up with having that crap in their food anyways. So they tend to eat real food. That means bread that only stays fresh a few days, meat and dairy/animal products without antibiotics or growth hormones, and fruits/veggies grown in healthier soil and with far less pesticide usage. If they eat ice cream, sweets, etc, it is the high-fat, high-quality "real deal" food that satisfies their craving not a crappy alternative. Because it is real food with real taste, they don't need to eat much to feel satisfied. Ever noticed a small scoop of real full-fat Italian gelato is way more satisfying than a pint of Ben and Jerry's? Exactly. Also, notably, they make things like salad dressings, sauces, soups, etc by hand, it is not packaged. It is real hard for your body to processfood-like products rather than actual food. In the words of dear author Michael Pollan, if your grandparents wouldn't recognize it as food, don't put it in your mouth.
They eat in a relaxed manner. While I think this has changed somewhat in our modern, overly-busy lifestyles, Europeans tend to sit and savor their food far longer than most of my American friends. They don’t really eat fast food, and rarely eat their breakfast on their walk/drive/ride to work, or eat their sandwich for lunch at their desk or running from meeting to meeting. It is more of a sit-down affair. Sitting down to receive ones’ food and savoring the meal allows for better digestion, and it is simply just easier to notice when you are sated when you are sitting down and actually paying attention.
Want to learn more about healthy eating guidelines? Contact me about my upcoming course Align to Thrive