The French don’t give a fig for fads
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.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019