- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

The average American puts on a few extra pounds every holiday season — and every January restates vows to hit the gym four times a week and eat more salad.

But wait a minute, the French don’t do that. They eat croissants, cheeses and chocolate, and — most annoying — they stay thin while doing it.

We love to criticize the French for everything from their foreign policy to their unwillingness to speak English. But when it comes to eating cake and keeping it off their thighs, they clearly have an edge. What’s their secret?

“It has to do with ‘how’ they eat,” says Will Clower, author of “The Fat Fallacy: The French Diet Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss.”

“They love their food. They eat breads, chocolates, wines and cheeses every day, and still they’re thin and live longer than we do,” Mr. Clower says. “It’s because they eat small, and they spend more time with their food.”

Didier Rosada, master baker at Uptown Bakers in Hyattsville, came to the United States about 10 years ago from Toulouse in southwestern France. He says he was surprised to see how much and how often Americans eat.

“In France, restaurants close between lunch and dinner. Here they stay open,” he says. “You can eat anytime you want to.”

He says he also noticed that people snack all the time.

“I eat breakfast at about 5 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at about 7 p.m. Usually, I don’t snack,” he says.

Mr. Rosada, however, takes his time with his meals. Dinner and often lunch are three courses each, can take up to an hour and are enjoyed fully, without the distraction of television, newspapers or phone calls, but preferably with nice conversation with friends and family.

“It’s how we eat,” he says. “It’s part of our culture.”

If he gets thirsty or hungry between meals, he drinks water. However, the professional baker admits that he occasionally will have a croissant.

France’s obesity rate is inching upward, but it’s nowhere near American levels. About 11 percent of French adults are obese, according to the International Obesity Taskforce, which is part of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, a nongovernmental organization that has 49 member associations representing 53 countries.

The U.S. obesity rate is more than 30 percent among adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reason the French, including our Hyattsville baker, can stay full for such a long time is twofold, says Mr. Clower, whose next book on the topic, “The French Don’t Diet Plan,” comes out in April.

“Not only do they take their time, their food also is high in fat and protein, which helps you stay full longer,” he says.

Americans, on the other hand, are crazy about low-fat products, many of which have high sugar content, he says. The high sugar content will make you hungry sooner, and you’ll end up eating more, he says.

Not that Mr. Clower is a fan of artificial sweeteners.

“Don’t eat inventions. If the ingredient doesn’t show up on a spell checker, don’t eat it,” he says. “Our body has adapted over thousands of years to things that grow here. … Soda cans don’t grow on trees. … The body treats high-fructose corn syrup as a toxin. It doesn’t recognize it as a sugar.”

Grocery store shelves in the United States are full of fat-free and low-carb products as well as various sodas, but that’s not the case in France, he says.

“I lived in Lyon for two years. … You go to the grocery store, and where are the rows of soda? They’re not there,” he says. “The French insist on high-quality food.”

Julie Leopold, nutrition program manager with Inova Health Source, an outpatient program run by Inova Health Systems in Fairfax, agrees the French are on to something.

“They have a positive attitude toward food,” she says. “They don’t cut out certain things. Instead, they just eat smaller portions.”

Americans, on the other hand, tend to restrict certain food groups when they attempt to lose or maintain weight.

“And then you end up overindulging in everything from potato chips to chocolate,” Mrs. Leopold says.

She says many Americans look at food as a necessary evil, constantly worrying about what and what not to put in their mouths instead of enjoying it and consuming it in moderation.

“Taking your time is also important,” she says. “It takes the brain about 20 minutes to realize that the stomach is full. If you’re eating quickly in less than that time, your brain won’t have time to register that you’re full.”

The other component to a healthy weight and a healthy heart is exercise. The French typically incorporate more physical activity into their daily lives, Mrs. Leopold says.

“They walk to and from work; they walk to and from the grocery store,” she says. “It makes a big difference.”

Mr. Clower agrees.

“You don’t have to join a gym. Do what’s easy and natural, or it won’t stick,” he says. “Treadmills usually become hatracks.”

Annie Boutin King, catering manager at the Ritz-Carlton in the District, moved to the United States about 25 years ago from Chantonnay on the west coast of France.

“I gained 10 pounds in about six months,” Mrs. Boutin King says. “My brother and father made fun of me.”

She says she adopted the habits of people around her, eating cookies and fast food all the time.

“People were munching all the time, and I did, too,” the petite Mrs. Boutin King says. She says she lost the 10 pounds and now weighs about 100 pounds.

Though she’s in the food-service business, she doesn’t snack much. She drinks water and eats fruit and says there are some misconceptions about what the French really eat.

“We don’t eat a lot pastries. At the end of a meal, we often eat a piece of fruit. In general, we eat a lot of fruit and vegetables,” she says. “French pastry, it’s a luxury, a special occasion.”

When asked about the French secret — referred to by some as the “French paradox,” the ability to eat rich food and stay slim — she simply says, “There’s nothing extraordinary about what we do. It’s not a paradox. We eat good food, but not too much.”

Maybe the paradox is here, with a population so obsessed with weight, so knowledgeable about the calorie and carb content of every fruit, vegetable and cereal.

“And we’re still not getting any thinner,” Mrs. Leopold says.

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