Experience in France teaches deliciously healthy lessons

By Kiley Owen, PA-C 

french couple in berets enjoying croissantsWhen I was in college I had a great opportunity to spend a semester abroad in France. In this post I'll let you in on a couple secrets of the French. If practiced, they can yield some great health benefits.

A Great Opportunity

In 1999 I was a typical poor college student, living the college life. It was my junior year at Murray State University. Fortunately I learned that, due to agreements between universities, the tuition to study abroad in France would be the same rate that I paid at Murray. The only extra expenses would be for flight and travel. (Gotta love the Eurail pass and cheap youth hostels!) I knew I'd probably never again have the chance to spend four months in Europe, so I went for it.

The experience was awesome. I highly recommend studying abroad to anyone in college. At the time, I was studying French language, and a career in health care was nowhere on the radar. But looking back, the experience taught me some great lessons in the area of preventive health.

Things the French Do Well 

When I think about France, I think about beautiful art, architecture, fashion, and language. But what really comes to mind is the food. The rich meats and sauces, the bread, the cheese, the wine, the desserts, the... FOOD! 

Interestingly, despite their rich food, the French are generally much thinner than Americans. There is also the "French Paradox"—the observation that the French have a relatively low incidence of coronary artery disease, despite having a diet relatively high in saturated fats. While there, I knew nothing of the French Paradox. I just knew they had some amazing food.

Let me be clear here—I am not recommending that you increase rich meats and sauces, bread, cheese, wine, and desserts in your diet. (For the record, I advocate a diet comprised mostly of nutrient-rich whole foods, high in fiber, with limited unhealthy fats and refined carbs.) But I do think the French are on to something when it comes to how they enjoy these delicious foods.  

A miniscule espresso, a petite piece of chocolate, a morsel of sharp cheese, a half-filled glass of wine; the French prefer tasting and sipping to gorging and guzzling. Small is good. 

—Harriet Welty Rochefort, Joie de Vivre

Learning the Hard Way

Now, I wish I could tell you that I followed the above advice while in France. Unfortunately I did not. I'm not sure if I missed that memo or (more likely) blatantly ignored it. In any case, I went a little crazy on some French food.

I chose to enjoy French cuisine in the American "supersize" fashion ... . And I ended up with a new size to show for it. I gained 20 pounds in four months.

To some, 20 extra pounds may not sound like that big of a deal. But when you're only 5'2", the extra weight definitely shows. More important than how I looked though, I didn't feel healthy.

Ironically, my eating habits became more "French" when I returned to the United States. I knew I needed to calm down on the amount I was eating. I didn't set any strict limits on what I could or couldn't eat, though I did choose healthier options more often. I mainly decreased my portion sizes, slowed down and took time to enjoy my food, and stopped eating when I started to feel full. I also walked a couple miles around campus most days, which helped.

I eventually lost the 20 pounds, plus some. More importantly, 16 years and two babies later, this approach has allowed me to maintain a healthy weight.

I point this out because long-term results come from a change in lifestyle. Diets rarely work because they tend to be intense, short-term fixes that are not sustainable.

A Healthy Perspective

french meal with reasonable portion sizesI would like to stress the part about enjoying food. The French are great at this. They take time to thoughtfully prepare, savor, and truly appreciate their meals. Even the simplest of meals have a fancier feel to them. The ritual of the meal, often presented simply yet elegantly and enjoyed in the company of others, is as important as the meal itself.

In my opinion, food is not only a necessity but a great pleasure in life. It should be enjoyed! When we spend our time obsessing over calories and feeling guilty all the time, we're needlessly depriving ourselves of this great joy. On the other hand, when we can learn to enjoy and appreciate delicious food in moderation, and turn simple meals into nice occasions for physical and emotional nourishment, particularly in the company of those we care about, there are great health benefits to be gained.  

So... bon appetit!

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post—along with helpful links to other resources—originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.