In France, eating well and staying slim is a constant preoccupation. But few people diet or go to the gym – and no one takes food scares seriously, says Helena Frith Powell
Another day, another diet scare. As British consumers panic about the latest report saying that red meat and wine may cause cancer, I am here in France tucking into a birthday lunch with a French friend.
We are eating lamb, roast potatoes, carrots and haricots verts. We will drink some red wine and, knowing my friend, we will finish off with a piece of dark chocolate.
In fact, if she doesn’t have any, I will bring some out from my own handbag. Since the news last week that craving chocolate can actually make you fatter, I never travel without my own bar.
The French think we’re hilarious with our faddy diets and food obsessions.
A few years ago we were supposed to avoid carbs. A meal without bread? You’ve got to be off your trolley. No red meat? I don’t think so.
The French eat from every food group at every meal, regardless of whether or not they are healthy, super-healthy or protect us from disease.
At Christmas last year we were invited over for an aperitif with some French friends. We had some wine. Shortly afterwards they produced some foie gras, followed by smoked salmon, followed by a selection of cheeses and then a home-made Christmas log.
“Thanks for dinner,” I said, when we finally stumbled out at 11.30pm.
“That wasn’t dinner,” said the wife, horrified. “There were no vegetables.”
And no crisps or processed canapés, either. The French eat a very balanced diet.
For them, healthy eating and staying thin is not something they do once a year before they put on a bikini or because some health watchdog has issued an ultimatum; it’s something they think about on an hourly basis.
They always think about eating well. It is part of their daily routine. And therein lies the difference.
If you think about what you eat every day then you will remain thin – and avoid those possibly carcinogenic processed foods into the bargain.
The French don’t stuff their faces with doughnuts and fast food at every opportunity. Yes, they stop for lunch, but they don’t get fat.
They eat creamy cheeses but their heart attack rate is renowned for being low – the so-called French paradox. They might drink wine with lunch and dinner, but rarely more than a glass or two. Binge-drinking is simply not something that happens here.
Frenchwomen’s attitude to exercise is the same as their attitude to food. They don’t go to a gym and burn out once a week. Every opportunity to push a child on a swing or walk up some stairs is seen as an opportunity to exercise.
One Frenchwoman I know says that if she is stuck next to someone dull at a dinner party, she spends most of the time squeezing her pelvic floor.
On the way home, her husband no longer asks her if she had a good time: he asks her how her pelvic floor is. If it’s in good shape, he knows she was bored out of her mind.
The news that we shouldn’t eat red meat or drink alcohol does not worry me. Nor does the theory that five portions of fruit and vegetables may not protect me from cancer.
I will just keep eating a little of what I want to every day – and, as I tuck into my Brie and French bread, I will wait for the next fad to send everyone in England into spirals of despair.
Here in France, nothing gets in the way of lunch – least of all a scientific report.