April 25, 2005 -- Business Week Magazine


French Women's Svelte Secret

The advice in French Women Don't Get Fat works anywhere: Buy fresh, season with love, savor the flavor, and shun fast food

Reading French Woman Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, $22) may sound like a terribly annoying experience. Who wants to be told how to eat by a thin, wealthy French businesswoman? And, as Mireille Guiliano warns the reader early, men may not be the audience for her mix of memoir, advice, philosophy, and recipes.

Au contraire! I found much of her thinking about food, eating, and life close to my own. Her philosophy is also consistent with that of sane, rational foodies as well as the food police who criticize American eating trends with far less grace than Guiliano brings to the table.

Guiliano is CEO of the champagne house Clicquot Inc. Far from anti-American, she's simply pro-French when it comes to shopping for food, cooking, and eating. Lest anyone dismiss a book written by a person moving in such elite circles, allow me to pluck out the clearest, sanest points, with a little commentary of my own.

1. "Most Americans eat at least 10% to 30% more than needed, not to survive but to satisfy psychological hunger."

True. Drive-up windows at fast-food joints aren't for people in search of good meals but too busy to get out of the car. They exist to enable impulsive eating of fat- and salt-laden junk.

2. "One thing French women know is that the pleasure of most foods is in the first few bites; we rarely have seconds."

Well, I would argue that French women know many other things, too...but back to the food. The Spanish are famous for eating tapas-style, but the French widely practice it too. And it's the most enjoyable way to eat. After two bites of anything, one is eating out of rote, obligation, or need for fuel. After two bites, three at the most, the flavors have given up all they are likely to. Give me a few carefully prepared tapas dishes over a typical American Thanksgiving dinner plate crammed with food any day.

3. "When you learn to replace the junk with goodies that truly satisfy, you will learn that the rule of 'Less Is More' is no cop-out."

There's no reason for anyone to eat individually wrapped slices of "cheese," bread devoid of texture or crust, or chicken-loaf cold cuts. Eat more flavorful, interesting, and whole, healthful foods -- which can cost more than processed, false Frankenfood -- and civilized portions tend to follow.

Why? Price is one issue. But it's also one behavior feeding another. People tend to behave more civilly, for example, the better they are dressed. And one small bar of genuine dark chocolate made with first-rate ingredients by a caring artisanal chocolatier beats the hell out of a bigger, more caloric Snicker's bar at a quarter of the price.

4. "French women love to shop and prepare food. They love to talk about what they have bought and made."

Like many time-strapped people, I find that the busier I get, the worse my eating patterns become. Take time to shop every day, choose the best, in-season ingredients, which tend to cost more than the banalities that litter a typical supermarket or discount club store, and you will become more involved in, and conscious of, what you put into your mouth.

5. "Any program that your mind interprets as punishment is one your mind is bound to rebel against."

Sorry, the Atkins diet and others that restrict certain whole fruits, tubers, etc. miss the point. Rather than focusing on how much of something one eats, focus on the quality of everything one eats. Your body recognizes the feeling of fullness after eating complete foods -- vegetables, berries, whole-grain breads -- much faster than it does after eating incomplete, sugary, overly salted, fatty, processed, chemical-laden foods.

6. "No multitasking while you eat. No TV, newspaper, or eating at the wheel or on the subway."

This goes for the three meals a day everyone should have. The author recommends keeping a real snack at hand, in a purse or briefcase, such as a small bag of nuts or chunk of cheese to see one through an inadvertently missed or delayed meal. Americans reduce cooking and eating to a sideshow, with the real focus on watching the news or a Seinfeld rerun. Curse the TV dinner! Eat with care, share it with someone if possible, and focus on what is going into your mouth.

7. "Why do people of all walks of life [in France] brave the cold and heat, rain or shine, to choose among three varieties of string beans, seven types of potatoes, various shapes of bread, quail eggs, organic hens, wild boar, 43 varieties of cheese, and untold numbers of herbs, fish, and, of course, fresh-cut flowers?"

Because the French traditionally care deeply about food. Guiliano delivers a charming story about the way the French chat with their greengrocer about choosing a melon based on the day it's to be served. That's lovely and civilized.

8. "Whether you subscribe to the notion that we all need eight glasses of water a day, it's common sense that we are better off drinking more water and a lot less soda pop."

One ounce of real, 100% fruit juice or 11 ounces of water with lemon slices beats a 12-ounce soda, diet or regular, for hydration and thirst-quenching every time. Marketing, not thirst, drives people to drink soda like tap water.

Guiliano peppers the book with recipes from her regular arsenal of lunches and dinners. She admits to eating out some 300 times a year. But that still leaves a lot of meals to cook. All the recipes are easy and focus on using a few high-quality, distinct, fresh ingredients, which is, after all, the whole purpose of the book.

She notes, accurately, that visitors to France find no abundance of health clubs. And surprisingly few French women buy stair-step machines. The French believe in getting their exercise throughout the day, by walking and biking.

Guiliano lives in New York City much of the year, so no one can accuse her of writing as a French schoolmarm who bases generalities on a handful of visits to the U.S. office of her company. The book is about eating in a civilized, refined way more than it is about what to eat and how much to exercise. In fact, it's more about how to live in a quality way than about how to live in a certain French way. It makes sense. To the French, separating how one lives from how one eats is like trying to separate the sunshine from the sun.

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