The French Women Makeover for Coffee Addicts

Small Diet and Lifestyle Changes Add Up

Caroline was a generation older than Camille, the first coworker I helped with recasting. I’d met Caroline at a seminar for women business leaders. Most of her life she had had no breakfast except a cigarette or two and a cup of coffee with double sugar. This, again, seemed like a college girl’s habit, though Caroline’s college days were long behind her. Now that she had quit smoking for good—after many failed attempts—she was starving in the morning. She had gained ten pounds over the past year, and seemed prepared to accept it, though crankily, as the inevitable tradeoff for not smoking. Her non-smoker’s breakfast was not much of an improvement: a glass of orange juice from the carton (a hit of pure sugar), two cups of coffee with two teaspoons of sugar each (sugar with coffee, really) and two biscotti (more sugar). Not only too sweet but boring. Her food log also revealed a taste for dishes with heavy sauces, odd, given the relatively mild weather.

The rest of her eating pattern wasn’t too bad, though she suffered from the extremely common problems of not enough vegetables and fruit and water. Her principle offender was sugar in various forms, plain and hidden. She could never skip dessert, a weakness to which I could easily relate. Less typical was her love of cheese. Having traveled a bit with her husband she had a keen sense of quality, favoring some that might seem too pungent for the average American. (Offenders can’t be too personal.) But she hadn’t learned what a just portion was.

Recalibrating Her Wake-up Jolts

Changing breakfast wasn’t easy. Some of us can’t quite start the day without coffee and cannot drink coffee without sugar. Often, though, this comes from drinking bad coffee: instant, or freeze dried. Fewer need sugar given the taste of freshly ground coffee, though it still can take a bit of an adjustment. With a cheap little coffee-grinder, it took only 30 extra seconds to brew a luxurious, aromatic pot; and she was able to reduce the sweetening progressively to half a teaspoon by the third week. She eliminated the orange juice gradually—by a third at a time over three weeks, replacing it with a fruit later in the day. The biscotti gave way to a slice of whole grain bread with a sliver of butter. (People who would never dream of butter at breakfast don’t understand what a luxury the smallest amount can seem.) And to give it some heft that would hold her till lunch, we added yogurt, at first with a little drizzle of the acacia honey I had put her on to, but soon unsweetened. Sure enough, she was seeing breakfast now not as a sugar-charged jump start, but as a ritual of self-pampering; it put her in a sunnier mood to face the day.

Dessert in restaurants was a challenge. Like many empty-nest New Yorkers, she and her husband often ate out in the neighborhood for convenience’s sake, and there was always a sweet temptation among the specials. Fortunately, it was summer and fresh berries, melons and figs didn’t seem a hardship, particularly when served with good yogurt—as it was in her local Greek restaurant. But when some baked or gooey confection beckoned, there was no need to fight it. Order one dessert and slowly savor one or two forkfuls; the rest she could pass on to her husband or friends: “let them eat cake.”

The attraction to heavy sauces was weird. Actually, an old friend explained it to me when I noticed his own preference for them while eating out in Paris. Smoking wreaks havoc on the olfactory mucous membranes and these are slow to repair themselves even after we quit. Since aromas are more soluble in fatty dishes, taste buds naturally find them more satisfying when the smelling component of taste has been a bit incapacitated. Not to deprive her of flavor, it was important then to reduce these fatty dishes ever so slowly for a while, and Caroline complied once understanding the problem. The nose also explained her over-indulgence with pungent cheeses. When dining at someone’s home in France, the cheese course is the only one that may be politely refused. This was too polite for Caroline’s taste, however, so she started cutting back, peu à peu. She also started cooking with more pungent flavors—turmeric, curry, hot peppers—harder for her palate or her recovering nose to miss. In time, milder flavors would begin to register again.

Caroline took to walking the six floors up to and down from her apartment whenever she had nothing to carry, and taking a 20-minute walk three times a week. She had no trouble learning to move like a typical French woman. Eleven pounds came off in 10 weeks, and she had to allow that far from feeling deprived, she felt more self-indulgent than she could ever remember feeling. Do her changes seem like deprivation to you?