Booting Out the Riff-Raff

French Women Tips for Dealing with the Offenders in Your Diet

Young beautiful women with apples looking at cookies

“Round Up the Usual Suspects.” Inspector Renaud’s famous line in Casablanca, when he lets Humphrey Bogart off the hook for killing the Nazi officer, is an apt command for the first step in recasting.

Let’s look at your food log. Does anything in your past three weeks seem strange? Maybe not. Without Dr. Miracle’s objective eye I might not have immediately identified my own “offenders,” those foods I was consuming out of all proportion. My big problems were bread, pastry and chocolate. Not such rare vices. But perhaps for you they are no vices at all: your consumption of them may be perfectly moderate or trivial. One slice of bread with lunch, a small slice of tart after dinner. Your offenders may be quite different.

Analyze your food log by determining what seems excessive in your judgment. You might begin by asking, “What could I live without—or at least less of?” Is the thought of those two cosmos at quitting time the only thing getting you through the day? How would one suit you? Or skipping every third day? Do you ask the waiter for more bread before he has even brought your order? You might find one slice savored slowly with dinner just as satisfying, or you might just as easily wait for your appetizer. Do you finish every French fry on your plate? . . . You see where I am going.

This is not radical. Little things do add up. But now ask yourself something else: which things do I most enjoy: my glass of wine at dinner? An ice cream cone on Sunday afternoon? Consider all the things you consume regularly: which of them is giving you real pleasure, and which are you having to pointless excess? One thing French women know is that the pleasure of most foods is in the first few bites; we rarely have seconds. The things we enjoy we don’t enjoy as a matter of routine.

Targeting the Criminal Elements

Still can’t decide what to throw overboard? OK, time to make like Inspector Renaud: round up the usual suspects. Here are a few things that many women are having too much of: potato chips, bagels, juices, beer or hard liquor, candy bars, ice cream, soda and junky chocolate. If you have any of these on a daily basis (for instance, chips on the side whenever you have a sandwich) consider it an opportunity! If, for the next three months, you can cut it out altogether without feeling brutalized, go for it.

But if it’s an “offender” critical to your contentment, reduce incrementally. Juice diluted with sparkling water is more quenching than juice straight. And you can reduce the juice part slowly. Bread is special, the staff of life for French people, not to be treated lightly. (In fact, bread, like chocolate, is one of those rare foods that can be your best friend or your worst enemy—I look closely at both in a later chapter.) But if you’re having three pieces at every meal, bring it down to a piece, and just pass the basket if you honestly don’t want any. Do not eat on autopilot. Eventually, you will have it only when it counts!

Am I Satisfied by It?

There is a life of blissful indulgence out there with less of all these things, even the ones that are basically good for you. Getting there happens once you discover that, on the whole, “offenders” are foods we tend to eat compulsively, with less actual pleasure than you might think. Often they are poor versions of something better: for instance, supermarket processed cheeses as compared with a real cheese of real character. When you learn to replace the junk with goodies that truly satisfy, you will learn that the rule of “more is less” is no cop-out. By then you’ll discover what is obvious to French women: there can be an almost ecstatic enjoyment in a single piece of fine dark chocolate even a dozen Snickers bars can never give you. On that subject, please also eliminate all “chocolate” loaded with cornstarch, corn syrup, artificial flavors, artificial coloring and sugar.

Where to Begin?

The great 18th century philosopher Descartes is famed for his dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” But he also knew a thing or two about how the body and the mind influence each other and that “in order to understand the passions of the soul, its functions must be distinguished from those of the body.” A French woman’s secret is mainly in her head. It is one thing to identify your offenders, quite another thing to manage them. If we all had an iron will, there would be no need for this book. On average, a French woman is no more likely than anyone else to possess one. But she is much likelier to have mastered the useful arts of self-deception—the mental part of living well. (In fact, I’d say that complete control of the mind over the body is undesirable; it suggests a lack of openness to the spontaneous delights of the senses.) So how are ordinary mortal women to get through three months of “offender” reduction as we pursue new habits and new balance? For starters, get very familiar with this roadmap to recasting, adjusted by trial and error over the years.