The French Pastry Diet
How to eat delicious bakery treats daily for a year and lose 10 pounds.
Posted Nov 06, 2019
Recently, I returned with my family from a year in Bordeaux, France. We called it our “family gap year,” our last hurrah together before the twins would be entering college. My wife Lene and I write textbooks together, in addition to being research psychologists, so we were able to continue our work there.
Much as I looked forward to that year, for many reasons, I was pretty sure that I would be led into temptation on a daily basis by the bakeries of Bordeaux, and this concerned me a bit. Like most people, I noticed a thickening of my midsection as I passed through my forties and fifties. This happens as a result of normal metabolic changes of aging. You could practice exactly the same dietary and exercise habits in your fifties as you did in your thirties, and nevertheless gain weight, as I found out. Apparently, the gods have a wicked sense of humor.
Nevertheless, I threw caution to the wind once we arrived and embraced my inner bon vivant. A year in France, I decided, is not the time for self-denial. A French bakery is the apex of civilization. Every day there is an array of delicacies laid out anew, each of them perfect, from flaky croissants to mouth-watering mini-tarts to cream-filled, sugar-sprinkled chouquettes (my personal favorite), and much more. Every morning that year I walked from our apartment on the river to the bakery in town to buy croissants and other treats for breakfast. We also went out to lunch and dinner a lot more than we do in the U.S.; there were so many delightful restaurants to try (and try again). We would typically have a three-course meal whenever we went out, as the French do: appetizer, main course, and dessert. And red wine, of course.
I avoided weighing myself for the entire year—why spoil the fun?—so I was surprised, shocked really, when we returned home and I stepped on the scale to find I had lost 10 pounds since we left. How the heck did that happen? When I thought about the research on obesity rates worldwide and their relation to national lifestyle habits, it made more sense to me.
According to the latest statistics, obesity is higher in the United States than in any other developed country: 40% of all adults. We’re number one. In truth, though, this statistic is not going to inspire widespread chanting of USA! USA! Obesity increases risks for a wide range of health problems, from knee and back pain to certain kinds of cancer to heart attacks. In France, meanwhile, the obesity rate for adults is 17%, less than half the American rate and on the low end among developed nations.
How do they do it, in a culture that exalts sensual pleasure, including eating for enjoyment rather than for virtue? There are answers in the way they eat, but also in how a nation’s obesity rates are due not just to diet but to a lot of other factors.
One of the things you notice quickly in France is that portions are a lot smaller. In the bakeries, a croissant is only about half the size of the croissant you would find in an American bakery. Eclairs are maybe three inches long. My beloved chouquettes are bite-sized. In the restaurants, a three-course meal may sound like a lot, but each course is quite small. And because the meal is separated into courses the pace of eating is slower, which inhibits overeating because it gives your brain time to hear from your gut that you’ve had enough. Also, I’m happy to report, drinking red wine with a meal helps make fat easier for the body to burn off, due to a natural wonder called resveratrol.
But it’s not just the food that’s different in France; it’s the lifestyle. You walk and bike a lot more in France, as in the rest of Europe. Town centers are often pedestrian-only, as was the case in Bordeaux, making them very pleasant to walk in. On my trips to the bakery every morning I walked about a half-mile round trip, and never thought of it as exercise. Similarly, we walked to restaurants, to and from the tram, to and from friends’ houses, and along the lovely river on evenings and weekends, just as part of daily life. When we didn’t walk, we often biked. There were safe, dedicated bike paths all through the city, and you could rent a bike cheaply whenever you needed one from automated stands all over town.
So, the reason the French obesity rate is less than half the American rate is not that the French are more virtuous than we are, or less self-indulgent, or more self-restrained. None of that has anything to do with it. In both countries, as everywhere, people adopt the customs and habits of the place where they carry out their daily lives. The question for us, as Americans, should be, how can we change our national habits—our supersized portions, our town centers, and our transportation infrastructure—so that they promote a healthier way of life? As soon as we solve that problem, we really need a national chain of bakeries specializing in chouquettes.