Why the French are Skinny

Criticize the French as you will, and I have been known to do so, we must give them this: Even though they eat many rich things, they are not as obese as we Anglophones. The Americans as we hear constantly, and accurately, are especially fat. Credit must be given where it is due.

Why is this? This interesting and well written article offers a lengthy explanation. It devotes itself to singing the praises of the French approach to cooking and eating, which involves sitting down at home for multi-hour meals (they even eat lunch at home), concern about quality and preparation, the devotion to food as pleasure rather than duty, to good restaurants as cultural shrines. We Anglo-Saxons are supposed to feel that we are missing something. And we are. But being part of one culture rather than another by definition means you are “missing something.” The implicit message is that we should become more like the French. I take away a simpler message.

What the article really boils down to is portion control. The French eat smaller quantities of very tasty things. We eat mountains of mediocre tasting things. We are not going to have food of routinely high quality here because we don’t care. But we should eat less of what is available. That is the whole story.

One can achieve portion control by observation and self-discipline, without adopting all of the, in some degree admirable, culinary practices of the French. Any attempt to get Americans to adopt the French attitude toward food more generally is both doomed and wrongheaded. We are simply never going to pay the opportunity cost of spending five hours a day on meals. We are a competitive society and we would rather, figuratively “eat the lunch” of our competitors, whether in the next cubicle, or in a rival business, than waste too much time or thought on the literal consumption of our own. I am perfectly satisfied with our approach. Food is fuel. I eat at my desk, often three meals per day. If one could take a pill instead of spending hours per day eating, that would be progress. Of course, in America it would immediately be mandatory to do this. But we would swiftly get used to it and reserve “eating” for special occasions like children’s birthday parties. “Do you remember when people used to ‘eat’, like, all the time? How weird!”

But, France is France, and superior food and drink is an element of their national greatness. I say this in complete seriousness. One of my favorite books is an extended hymn of praise to French food, wine and general attitude toward the pleasant things in life. So, I don’t begrudge them their ways. But we are different, and have different priorities and I don’t think less of us as a consequence.

22 thoughts on “Why the French are Skinny”

  1. Lex, good point about respecting cultural differences. Also, one reason why Americans are on average fatter may be our greater productivity: our opportunity cost of time spent eating is higher.

    BTW, we should be cautious about making international statistical comparisons. French rates of death by heart disease may appear lower because of differences in reporting, or because we put more effort into keeping very sick people alive, or may be catching up to ours. French people may also exercise more than Americans do, which might by itself explain all of the differences in mortality and disease rates. I don’t know if these questions have been settled, but anyway they are probably more complex than the article suggests.

  2. Good article Lex. My favorite store is Costco, and there is never a short line there. It goes with the American psyche: why have 1 when you can have 2 for the same price. My wife wanted almonds last week, so I bought her 5 pounds of the stuff. We tend to be more frugal and pragmatic, which goes back to the pilgrims/wildwest/new frontier history of the US. When you’re out breaking new ground, you don’t have time to worry about the figure. You’re right that food is fuel is our culture, and a natural byproduct of our history.

    One key take away I got from the article is that it’s similar to Russians. They have a diet high in fat, starch, and cholesterol. One dish I like – salo – is basically cold cuts of pig fat. It’s a natural evolution of their history as well. When you’re in a constantly cold climate, you will eat foods that your body uses to stay warm. The cold climate is also a natural slimming agent since being cold forces your body to use more energy. Other man made factors are war and communism. Lack of food is a constant theme throughout Russian history, so they tend to eat less, and portions in restaurants are smaller. Communism, believe it or not, does wonders for women’s figures. For 70 years, the Soviets have been basically telling them that they are equal to men (much like modern day feminists). So they had them dig anti-tank ditches, work in factories with heavy machinery, and weld tanks. So after the fall of communism, anti-feminism came back in a big way. Women there want to be women. Fashion is big, and so is looking good. So like the French, they have that external kick of wanting to be slim.

    It’s like religion in Russia. The Soviets basically killed Christianity. But now Christianity is coming back in a big way there.

  3. Note that Incognito seems to share my method of keeping slim, which is to avoid meals by spending a lot of time in front of the computer.


  4. Yeah, that helps too = ) Perhaps Chicagoboyz should conduct a study of the impact the internet has on eating habits.

  5. But look at the French! Who wants to be like them? A third-world nation, worthless, fops, the folks who gave us the friggin Renault Dauphine!

  6. Remember that Liebling was fat, fat, fat and died of gout. He abused French food and basically ate himself to death. Perhaps he aptly represents the American appetite: consuming the most of the best-of-the-best — until you die.

  7. Yeah, Liebling didn’t pick lightly from the feast that was France, he ate with both hands.

    That is quite an invention you’ve found there, Mrs. Lex. Is it a hint for a Christmas present?

  8. Hey, I want one too! Not for Christmas, of course. But maybe I could get one with Time pedals (an excellent French product). Attached to an alternator it could convert calories into kilowatts and cut down electric bills. It would be vraiment la bombe.

  9. Link via Drudge.


    Looks like the Brits are taking action against obesity. What a wrong headed way to go about it.

  10. The best thing is the quotes at the end of the article where almost all of the slim women interviewed say THEY SMOKE 10 OR MORE CIGARETTES PER DAY.

    The flip side of the obesity epidemic is the anti-smoking crusade.

  11. I think there are two issues being over-looked here: the French drink more wine which is supposed to be good for your heart in moderate amounts and the society is more urban than suburban, so people walk more aka get more exercise.

    Years ago when I spent a month in Europe I lost over twenty pounds there. I ate tons of European food and walked everywhere. They should market some sort of tourist diet. If I lived there, I’d be really thin.

    There’s also this fascinating article I read a while ago which discusses the difference in eating style as being a significant cause of the difference in cardiovascular disease. It basically argues that us Anglos do not relax when eating like the French do and so we’re more stressed.

    “I won’t bore you with the entire journey, but it comes down to this. From a metabolic perspective the body is either in an anabolic state: eating, digesting and storing food; or it is a catabolic state: rushing about, using up energy.

    The hormones that switch on catabolism are the stress hormones: adrenaline, growth hormone, glucagon and cortisol. The hormone that switches on anabolism is insulin; and insulin and the stress hormones are direct antagonists in many organs. Insulin switches off sugar production in the liver, stress hormones switch it on. Insulin makes fat and muscle cells absorb sugars and fats. The stress hormones do the opposite.

    It is apparent, therefore, that if you eat whilst under stress you will be in a conflicting state of raised insulin levels, and insulin resistance. Just to look at what happens in this state to the simplest metabolic substance, sugar.

    When you eat sugar, it is rapidly absorbed, the level in the bloodstream rises, and insulin is released, causing the blood sugar level to drop. But if you are stressed, glucagon and cortisol will be trying to drive the sugar level up. In this situation, what can the metabolic system do? It will keep on cranking up the insulin levels to overcome the resistance to insulin, however, in most cases this is still not sufficient to overcome the resistance.

    So what you will see in a person eating sugar whilst stressed is a combination of three things:

    1. A raised level of stress hormones

    2. A raised level of insulin

    3. A raised blood sugar level

    All of these things damage the endothelium. Raised stress hormones also increase blood coagulability. In addition, hyperglycaemia induces a state of oxidative stress (release of free radicals) which stimulates platelets to stick together, which also creates oxidised LDL – both of which further promote thrombus formation

    Thus, eating under stress creates the exact metabolic state, pro-coagulant state, that leads to endothelial damage and thrombus formation. I believe that this damage is the underlying cause of atherosclerotic plaques and premature death from heart disease.”

  12. The French eat less because you don’t need as much energy to work a 35 hour work-week. Thin and lazy, what a dream combination!

  13. Actually, I think more work and higher productivity is what tends to make Americans eat more. Although I’m still a skinny dude by American standards, I have gained weight living here. Mostly due to all the high-calories stuff I end up eating between meals like almost everybody else. A Diet Coke here, a few cookies there, munchies and caffeine and sugar….combined with a very different lifestyle where you essentially sit at home until you sit in the car to work, where you sit some more. As opposed to walking around your hometown all the time. I probably walked two or three miles a day when I lived in Dublin. I’m not sure I walk three miles a week in the US.

    But the main difference in diet, in my experience, is not so much in kind or quantity. It’s the overall balance. American meals – which I love – tend to be overweight on something, so that you get a big chunk if your intake from meat or potatoes. French food is – not trying to be overly PC here – more diverse in its ingredients and does a better job at sharing the burden between them. So you might get the same amount of calories, but from more sources.

  14. Actually, obesity rates in America closely parallel those of Europe once you correct for the relative proportion of European ethnic groups within the American population. IIRC 70% of Americans of primarily European descent descend from Anglo-German cultures of Northern Europe. These cultures traditionally diets high, high animal protein and salt (from preservatives). Fresh fruits and vegetables were comparably rare. For many people of northern Europe, vitamins came from organ meats of animals processed into sausages and from pickled vegetables like sauerkraut. The climate in America more closely resembles that of Northern Europe as well. Prior to refrigeration and fast shipping, fresh fruits and vegetables were very rare out of season. Mediterranean Europe eats far more fresh fruits and vegetables because historically they have had much better access to them.

    America also has relatively large populations descended from sub-Saharan Africa and American-Indians who did not possess a high carbohydrate grain based agriculture. These people are at high risk for morbid obesity and diabetes if they eat a high carbohydrate diet.

    As in many things, we make a serious mistake of assuming that France and America are very similar countries when in many important ways we are not.

  15. Mrs. Lex nailed it. They all smoke like chimneys. Vile things like unfiltered Gitaines. A pox on the Araft kissing vermin.

  16. cb, are you saying that their porn is better or that the porn is better there? And in any case how would having better porn make for less obesity? If there’s any possible causal relationship we must investigate it thoroughly. Our national bodily integrity could be at stake. Maybe we should ask Sylvain for a cross-cultural comparison. Although I am not sure that he has ever seen porn, being the fresh-faced and innocent lad we know him to be.

  17. I meant to say ‘their porn is better’, although I assume that the other is true. However, I agree, a lengthy investigation is in order. I bravely nominate myself as a test subject.

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