The fad diets that sweep America are almost unheard of in France. The French don't count carbs or fill their pantries with low-fat snacks. They eat foods that make diet-conscious Americans cringe-buttery croissants, rich cheeses, fat-laden pâtés. Few belong to health clubs.

Yet the French don't get fat. In France, the obesity rate is only approximately 8%—while approximately 30% of Americans are obese. The French are three times less likely than Americans to get heart disease. And they live longer-men live an average of two years more... women, three years more. Why are the French trimmer and healthier?

Americans focus on what they should not eat. They look at a piece of pie and say to themselves, "I shouldn't eat that it will make me fat." Eating becomes less about pleasure than avoiding hazards.

That's a key reason why many people don't stick with a diet. A Tufts University study showed that 22% of people on low-carb or low-fat diets abandoned them after two months, After a year, the drop-out rate was almost 50%.

The French have a healthier relationship with food. They don't have to diet because they're not overweight. And they're not overweight because they…

  • Choose quality over quantity. A Frenchman would rather have 10 perfect pommes frites than a plateful of soggy French fries or a small dish of creme brûlée rather than a mass of store bought cookies. Also, the stomach stretches and demands more food if you take big servings on a regular basis.

Helpful: Take a little less than you think you want.

Studies show that people typically overestimate the amount of food they need—and once it's on the plate, they tend to eat it even if they have had enough. If you're going out to eat, share an entrée or just have an appetizer as your main course.

  • Savor each bite. It's common in France to linger for hours over meals. Eating quickly almost guarantees that you'll take in excess calories. It takes 15 to 20 minutes for the stomach and small intestine to signal the brain that you're full. Helpful...
  • Take small bites. Give yourself time to appreciate the aroma, texture and flavors.
  • Set down your fork between bites. Don't pick it up until you have chewed and swallowed your food. Americans often fill their forks for the next bite before they have finished the previous one.
  • Make time for conversation...and only talk when your mouth is empty. This naturally slows the pace of meals and reduces the calories you consume.
  • Plan on seconds. Knowing that you can have a second helping is psychologically reassuring-you're more likely to take a smaller portion the first time around if you know that you can have more. By the time you're ready for seconds, you may not want them-or you may choose to have a small dessert instead.
  • Don't combine eating with other activities. This means not nibbling in front of the TV or while driving. The French make eating a special occasion, and they rarely snack.
  • Forgo "faux" foods. A lot of things we eat are little more than an accumulation of chemicals. If you look at the labels on chips, sodas and other snacks, you'll see partially hydrogenated oils, sodium stearyl lactylate, polysorbate 60, etc. Also because these products lack flavor, they're often loaded with corn syrup.

The French rarely eat processed foods or have soft drinks. Most of their diet consists of grains, legumes and fresh fruits and vegetables. They get fewer sugar calories...and the fiber that is in natural foods slows digestion and increases feelings of satiety.

  • Get enough healthy fat. The French don't worry about fat. Approximately 35% to 45% of their daily calories come from fat. Some comes from the saturated fat in butter, cheese and red meat, though the French eat red meat only about once a month. They mainly eat fish or game meats, such as rabbit or pheasant, which are naturally low in saturated fat. Most of the fat the French consume comes from nuts, fish and olive oil-healthy fats that cause you to feel full without elevating cholesterol or heart disease risk. (The French also drink wine regularly, and wine-in particular, red wine-has been shown to improve cardiovascular health.)
  • Exercise daily. Even though the French don't work out in gyms as often as Americans, they're not sedentary. They ride bikes. They go for long walks.

I usually advise people to try dance classes, yoga or tai chi. These activities burn calories and are more enjoyable for most people than lifting weights or running on a treadmill.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in