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Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.

Jan Chozen Bays M.D.

Mindful Eating: The French Paradox

How do the French get away with it?

Butter, croissants, pate de foie gras and lots of cheese, it's not a diet that an American doctor would recommend! Why are the French able to eat


three times as much fat as Americans, and yet they are thinner and have a lower incidence of heart disease than we do? There are several interesting reasons for this paradox.

Eating less and enjoying it more

First, the French serve and eat smaller portions than Americans do. A cooperative study by researchers from both sides of the Atlantic showed that the mean American serving size in a variety of restaurants, including fast food restaurants and ice cream parlors, was 25% larger than in France. In Chinese restaurants the meal was 72% larger in the US! Single servings such as candy bars and yoghurt in supermarkets were also significantly larger in America than in France. 


An American serving of Chinese restaurant food versus a French serving.

We Americans love to get a food bargain for our money. "All you can eat for $ 7.95." "This week only: two whopping huge burgers for the price of one." Mindful eating means carefully considering whether eating a lot of cheap food really is a bargain. It's not if eating it all causes us to gain unwanted weight!                         

Is this really a bargain?     Only in America is this a one-person portion size.

How to work mindfully with large portion sizes in restaurants? First, choose how much your stomach and body actually want to eat. Eat slowly, checking in with the stomach frequently to see if you are 4/5 full yet. When you are, stop, drink some liquid. Ask for a box and take the rest home for an even bigger bargain - a "free" lunch or dinner tomorrow. Now that's a bargain!

My Japanese friends are overwhelmed by the huge portions of food in American restaurants. They cope by ordering one meal and an extra plate for two people. Once in a while my husband likes to eat breakfast at a pancake house-type place. He orders the full breakfast, a three egg and two cheeses omelette, bagel, and hash browns. I just order a large juice and maybe some fruit. Between us we have two good meals, not too much, not too little. And in lean economic times, the price is right, even if the restaurant asks you to pay a collar for the extra plate.

 What he orders  +  what  I order   =  Two appropriate size breakfasts

Americans are always enticing each other to "have a little bit more" but the French and Japanese don't often take second portions or snack between meals. We Americans have learned to nibble on food and drink almost continuously between meals. Our mouths have become used to having something to taste all day long. When I was a child, there were no between-meal snacks. We never thought of rummaging through the refrigerator or cupboards to get something to eat. We ate the three meals our mothers served, and that was it. Sometimes we'd get some apple slices or carrot sticks after school to hold us over until dinner.

It was during and after World War II, when mothers began working, that snack foods were invented. Little sealed packs of jello, pudding, cookies, candy, chips, even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, were convenient for tucking into lunch boxes, but also into purses, back packs, glove compartments in cars, and into the vending machines that sprouted up everywhere, eventually invading schools. Kids began feeding themselves when they wanted to, and food companies developed an array of processed foods with plenty of fat, sugar and salt to appeal to those kids.



Eating slowly and enjoying it more

European friends tell me that "eating lunch in France is a two hour affair." If you sat down, pointed to the first thing on the menu, told the waiter that you were in a hurry, and ate while talking on a cell phone, the waiter and chef would probably shoot you, and French courts might call it justifiable homicide.

It takes 20 minutes for food to reach the first part of the small intestine. When that happens, chemical signals are sent back to the brain and rest of the digestive organs to say, "Whoa! Stop eating! We've had enough to eat!" If we eat too fast, we can easily put too much food into our bodies before the satiety signals are received.

When we eat more slowly, we have time to savor each bite. Have you ever noticed how the first bite of a food we like brings a very enjoyable flavor burst, but by the third or fourth bite, the flavor sensations decrease? If we eat slowly, pausing until one bite is completely chewed, swallowed, and the taste is almost gone from our mouth, then the next bite we take is very enjoyable again. We end up getting a lot of pleasure out of ten bites instead of enjoying only the first two bites and eating twenty more in search of that original delicious flavor.


Try taking smaller first portions of food than you usually would.
(Keep the serving bowls out of sight.)

Eat more slowly than you usually would, paying full attention to each bite, and pausing between bites, letting the flavors in the mouth dissipate before you put the next bite in. Eat each bite mindfully. If you need to talk, talk while you're pausing. Stop talking when you're eating. If you're reading, read a bit while you're pausing, not while you are eating.

When you've eaten the first portions, pause and ask the stomach, " How full are you? Do you need more? How much more? "

Adjust your second portions according to the information the stomach gives you.
Maybe you only need two more bites of a food to feel satisfied.


About the Author

Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.

Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., is a pediatrician and Zen teacher who has been practicing and teaching mindful eating for over twenty years. Her most recent book is Mindful Eating.