French Women Don’t Get Fat Excerpt


Whatever the state of Franco-American relations — admittedly a bit frayed from time to time — we should not lose sight of the singular achievements of French civilization. Until now, I humbly submit, one glorious triumph has remained largely unacknowledged, yet it’s a basic and familiar anthropological truth: French women don’t get fat.

I am no physician, physiologist, psychologist, nutritionist, or any manner of “-ist” who helps or studies people professionally. I was, however, born and raised in France, and with two good eyes I’ve been observing the French for a lifetime. Plus, I eat a lot. One can find exceptions, as with any rule, but overwhelmingly, French women do as I do: they eat as they like and don’t get fat. Pourquoi?

Over the past decade, we Americans have made valuable progress in understanding the French capacity for getting away with murder vis-à-vis food and drink. The cautious acknowledgment of a “French Paradox,” for example, has sent countless heart patients and wellness enthusiasts sprinting to the wine store for bottles of red. But otherwise, the wisdom of the French way of eating and living, and in particular the uncanny power of French women to stay svelte, remains little understood, much less exploited. With myself as living proof, I have successfully counseled dozens of American women over the years, including some who have come to work for me at Clicquot, Inc., in New York City. I’ve also addressed thousands on aspects of this subject in talks. I’ve been teased by American friends and business associates: “When will you write zee book?” Well, le jour est arrivé!

Could it be Nature alone? Could the slow wheel of evolution have had time enough to create a discrete gene pool of slender women? J’en doute. No, French women have a system, their trucs — a collection of well-honed tricks. Though I was born into it, living happily as a child and even a teenager by what my maman taught me, at a moment in my adolescence the wheels came off. In America as an exchange student, I suffered a catastrophe that I was totally unprepared for: a twenty pound catastrophe. It sent me into a wilderness from which I had to find my way back. Fortunately, I had help: a family physician whom I still call Dr. Miracle. He led me to rediscover my hereditary French gastronomic wisdom and to recover my former shape. (Yes, this is an American story, too, a parable of fall and redemption.)

I have now lived and worked in America most of my life. (I like to believe that I embody the best parts of being American and being French.) I moved here a few years after university and worked as a UN translator, then for the French government, promoting French food and wine. I married a wonderful American and eventually found my way to corporate life. In 1984, I took the leap that has let me live in two cultures ever since. The venerable Champagne House of Veuve Clicquot, founded in 1772, boldly opened a U.S. subsidiary to handle the importation and marketing of Champagne Veuve Clicquot and other fine wines. As the first employee, I immediately became the highest-ranking woman on staff since Madame Clicquot, who died in 1866. Today I am a CEO and director of Champagne Veuve Clicquot, part of the luxury goods group LVMH.

All the while, I’ve continued to practice what most French women do without a second thought. And the dangers I have faced for years now are well above average. No exaggeration, my business requires me to eat in restaurants about three hundred times a year (tough job, I know, but someone has to do it). I’ve been at it for twenty years, never without a glass of wine or Champagne at my side (business is business). These are full meals: no single course of frisée salad and sparkling water for me. Yet I repeat: I am not overweight or unhealthy. This book aims to explain how I do it and, more important, how you can, too. By learning and practicing the way French women traditionally think and act in relation to food and life, you too can do what might seem impossible. What’s the secret? First, a word about what it’s not.

So many of us do double duty, working harder inside and outside the home than most men will ever know. On top of it, we must find a way to stay healthy as we try to maintain an appearance that pleases us. But let’s face it: more than half of us cannot maintain a stable, healthy weight even with all the self-inflicted deprivation we can muster. Sixty-five percent of Americans are overweight, and the fastest-selling books are diet books, most of them now written like biochemistry manuals. No matter how many appear, there are always ten more on the way. Could dietary technology really be progressing as fast as the marketing? Anyway, the demand persists. Why? Why don’t the million-copy wonders put a definitive end to our woes? Simply put, unsustainable extremism.

Most diet books are based on radical programs. Apart from a brief Jacobin interlude in the eighteenth century, extremism has never been the French way. America, however, gravitates toward different philosophies, quick fixes, and extreme measures. In diet as in other matters, these work for a time, but they’re no way to live. You’re bound to slip out of your Zone, fall off your Pyramid, lose count of your calories. And why not? C’est normal!  It doesn’t help matters that one extreme prescription is often contradicted by the very next one to gain traction. Who doesn’t remember the high-carb days? Or the grapefruit days? Now everything’s fat and protein, and carbs are the devil; first dairy products are your worst enemy, then they are the only thing you can eat. Ditto wine, bran, red meat. The unstated principle seems to be, if you bore yourself to death with one kind of food group, eventually you’ll lose interest in eating altogether and the pounds will come off. In some cases, they do. But what happens after you stop the radical program? You know what happens. For this reason, attention!  Banish the diet book! You don’t need an ideology or a technology, you need what French women have: a balanced and time-tested relation to food and life. Finally, the coup de grâce against these extreme programs is their general lack of attention to the individuality of our metabolisms. Written mostly by men, they rarely acknowledge that the physiology of women is profoundly different. And a woman’s metabolism changes over time: a woman of twenty-five with some weight to lose faces a different challenge from that of a fifty-year-old.

While my stories and lessons can be of benefit to anyone, this book is intended primarily for women, being based solely on my experience as a woman. It’s not only for Americans, but for women throughout the developed world, who face career pressures, personal stress, globalization, and all the traps of twenty-first-century society. And it is not for those whose weight is an immediate health risk, or who require a medically prescribed diet. I speak specifically to women who need to lose up to thirty pounds, which is a great proportion of the population. Nevertheless, like the Tintin cartoons, the story is for all ages, seven to seventy-seven, and I offer advice for tailoring it to the various periods of our lives. Since French women do not live by bread alone, much less high protein, I present a comprehensive approach to living, strategies and philosophy you can make your own, including menus and quick recipes anyone can follow and, bien sûr, a guide to how we move. Oh, and I like to think that men of all nations could benefit from learning a thing or two about the other gender.

Okay, so what are the secrets of French women? How do we account for all those middle-aged women with the figures of twenty-five-year-olds strolling the boulevards of Paris? The following chapters draw on observations from my time in Paris (about twelve weeks a year) compared with my weeks in New York City and around the United States and the world. I invite the reader to reflect on the differences and modify her approach to healthy living accordingly.

At the outset, let’s state that French women simply do not suffer the terror of kilos that afflicts so many of their American sisters. All the chatter about diets I hear at cocktail parties in America would make any French woman cringe. In France, we don’t talk about “diets,” certainly not with strangers. We may eventually share a trick or two we’ve learned with a very close friend — some cunning refinement of an old French principle. But mainly we spend our social time talking about what we enjoy: feelings, family, hobbies, philosophy, politics, culture, and, yes, food, especially food (but never diets).

French women take pleasure in staying thin by eating well, while Americans typically see it as a conflict and obsess over it. French women don’t skip meals or substitute slimming shakes for them. They have two or three courses at lunch and then another three (sometimes four) at dinner. And with wine, bien sûr. How do they do it? Well, that’s a story. That’s the story. One hint: they eat with their heads, and they do not leave the table feeling stuffed or guilty.

Learning that less can be more and discovering how one can eat everything in moderation are keys. So are exertion in proportion to calories consumed and a much more plentiful intake of water. We no longer work eighteen hours a day in a mine or on a farm, and our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days are long past. Nevertheless, most Americans eat at least 10 to 30 percent more than needed, not to survive but to satisfy psychological hunger. The trick is to manage and gratify your appetites, while determining how, when, and what to reduce. The wonderful feelings of satisfaction you’ll notice when a new menu is introduced — a heightened enjoyment even as overall intake is decreased — will then inspire you to continue along the wellness road. It’s all a matter of learning the most basic of French rules: fool yourself.

Many nutritionists (valuable educators) promote a commonsense approach but charge a fortune to tell you how to implement it. The money spent on attempting to lose weight is out of all proportion with outcomes. Most women simply can’t afford to see a doctor or nutritionist, join a health club, go to a spa, or have meals delivered. What will it cost you to practice the secrets of French women? Well, above the cost of this book, very little. My do-it-yourself approach is within virtually every woman’s means. The only equipment is a small scale to weigh some of your foods during the critically important first three months. You might also want to buy a yogurt machine if you want to eat le vrai yaourt, a key element in my lifestyle program; and if you are past age forty, you should acquire some dumbbells for strength building. C’est tout

I begin with my childhood in France and then share my experience as a young woman with a weight challenge. Faced with the first physical wake-up call of my life, I turned to traditional French principles for help. By sharing my experience not only with food, but with a “total approach” to healthy living, I aim to guide each reader toward finding her own equilibrium. (Le mot juste indeed: it’s an important concept, because while our bodies are machines, no two are built exactly alike, and they “reset” themselves repeatedly over time. A program that doesn’t evolve with you will not see you through the long run.) I provide menus you can follow exactly, but the goal is to develop what works for you as you cultivate a new intuition. I’m not presenting prescriptions so much as templates. Tailor them according to your preferences, paying attention to your own body, schedule, environment, and other unique characteristics. In fact, my emphasis is on the simplicity, flexibility, and rewards of doing it yourself. This fine-tuning can’t be done by a doctor-author who’s never met you.

As I recount my own story from adolescent meltdown to rescue to a new approach that has worked for decades and counting, I lay out a path for you. I take readers through a complete program:

Phase one, wake-up call: an old-fashioned three-week inventory of meals. A clear-eyed look at what you’re eating, which itself, even after a couple of days, can begin your turnaround.

Phase two, recasting: an introduction to the French school of portions and diversity of nourishment. You’ll identify and temporarily suspend some key food “offenders.” This is usually a three-month process, though for some a month will do the trick. It won’t be a dietary boot camp, merely a chance for your body to recalibrate. There is discipline, but flexibility is vitally important, especially at this key motivational stage: the value of avoiding routine both in meals and in activities, emphasizing quality over quantity. No pizza three days in a row, but also no three hours at the gym on Saturday. You’ll acclimate with your five senses to a new gastronomy (a Greek word, even before it was a French one, meaning “rules of the stomach”). Three months is not a short time, but neither is it long for something you’ll never need to do again. Naturally, it takes longer to reset your body’s dials than to lose seven pounds of water, the initial part of many extremist diets. But because it is French, there will be pleasures, lots of them.

Phase three, stabilization: a stage wherein everything you like to eat is reintegrated in proper measure. You have already achieved your reset “equilibrium” and should be at least halfway toward your weight-loss goal. Amazingly, at this point you can increase your indulgences and continue to slim down or just maintain your equilibrium if you are already there. I give advice for practicing ideas about seasonality and seasoning, powerful tools and not nearly as much trouble as some imagine. I present more recipes based on the French knack for variations on a theme, or how to make three easy dishes out of one with delicious results, saving time, money, and calories.

Phase four, the rest of your life: You are at your target weight, a stable equilibrium, and the rest is just refinements. You know enough about your body and preferences to make little adjustments in the event of any unexpected drifts, especially as you enter new phases of life. Your eating and living habits are by now tailored to your tastes and metabolism, so like a classic Chanel suit, they should last you forever with minor alterations over the years. Now you will be eating in a totally different light, with an intuition to rival that of any French woman — a cultivated respect for freshness and flavor that unlocks the world of sensory delights to be discovered in presentation, color, and variety. What you do you will do for pleasure, not punishment. You’ll enjoy chocolate and a glass of wine with dinner. Pourquoi pas?

In addition to nourishment, which is the main subject, I’ll describe aspects of healthy living that need to be pleasurable as well. As with food, these do not require extreme measures (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or financial) — only a sense of balance. They include elements of what I like to call French Zen, which can be learned quickly and easily and practiced anywhere (mainly, French women do not go to gyms, but if that is your pleasure, à chacun son goût!). Even the French know there is much more to life than eating, so here too you’ll find the French take on other diversions, like love and laughter. From beginning to end, it will be important to recognize that Montaigne’s aperçu is more relevant today than ever: A healthy body and healthy mind work together. To maintain both, there is no substitute for joie de vivre (an expression for which there is tellingly no American equivalent).

Now I have a few stories to tell, a few dozen, actually. I take pleasure in being a raconteur as well as in eating and drinking. They will drive home basic concepts, but I hope you will also enjoy them comme ça. Unlike a diet book, this book doesn’t let you flip to graphics and jump right in: you’ll have to read it. Learning to eat right is like learning a language — nothing works like immersion.

Let the tale begin.