The Basics of the French Lifestyle

It's never too late to learn.

This is the time to ask yourself, qu’est ce qui se passe, what is going on here? These tips will help you identify your hidden offenders and guide you through the recasting phase that will be the jumping off point of your new French lifestyle.

In my book French Women Don’t Get Fat, I tell the story of how, after studying in the US for a year in university, I came back to France having gained a significant amount of weight.I went to see a Doctor, whom I affectionately call Dr. Miracle, because he gave me lasting advice that I still use today. Here are the basic principles I learned from him, and adjusted by trial and error over the years. They are presented initially in brief to start you on recasting, but for a lifetime subscription to the secrets of French women, you’ll have to study, live and learn these techniques.


  • Slow and Steady
    There is no lasting glory in rapid weight loss. That’s what diets offer: a fast (weeks, not months) round of misery for temporary results. If you believe you can shed pounds quickly by force of will and deprivation, you will in all likelihood not only regain the ones you have lost but add a few more besides. (This is the origin of the expression “yo-yo dieting.”) If your recasting starts showing dramatic results within a month, you are among the lucky. But a proper recasting, resetting your body’s dials, is a three-month affair. The key is to make it a pleasant three months. Not a sentence in the Bastille.


  • Variety
    As Dr. Miracle counseled, crash diets also run the risk of “carences” (nutritional deficiencies), the dangers of which can be worse than those of excess weight. The answer is not in supplements but in eating the greatest possible variety of good foods. Such variety will go a long way toward compensating you for those things you miss—you will actually find yourself not missing them so much.It’s amazing to French women how much of the same old things some people will eat. Gastronomic boredom leads to lots of unhealthy eating. If you don’t make improvisation and experimentation part of your eating life, you are sure to find yourself in an eating rut. It’s as bad as a romantic rut—losing that spark—and just as likely to get you in trouble! French women know the importance of turning a bit of comfort into excitement. Don’t know your way around the market? Don’t have time to cook? Relax: you don’t have to be rich or a 3-star chef to enjoy a vast world of natural flavors. Once you learn a few tricks, it takes surprisingly little effort to cook with variety, and no more time than Monday night meatloaf.Consider this an opportunity to try foods and flavors you have never tried before. A new cheese you’ve heard of? A fresh herb? What about skate or shallots or mâche salade or celeriac? Or any number of varieties of oyster, one of my personal favorites. Novelty is a powerful distraction. Chose quality over quantity: pick things in season. Usually the best in season is cheaper that the worst off-season!A final trick of variety: since the pleasure of most foods is in the first few bites, eat one thing on your plate at a time. The mouthful as mélange (blend of foods) defeats the purpose of variety


  • Ritual Preparation
    French women love to shop and prepare food. They love to talk about what they have bought and made. It’s a deeply natural love, but one that is erased in many other cultures. Most French women learn it from their mothers, some from their fathers. But if your parents aren’t French you can still learn it yourself. Even though I was a student, Dr. Miracle sent me to one of the best local markets, rue Clerc, near where I lived in Paris, two to three times a week. His advice was simple: buy only what you need for the next day or two. (Forget your twice a month mega-hauls from the supermarket.) I was to cook simply but cook at home so as to see and learn what I was putting into my body.In recasting it is a great help to make and bring your own lunch. Avoid the unknowns of prepared foods, especially the processed kind. (Easier than bringing your scale to work!) It was equally important to transform my evening meal into a sort of “gourmand” happening. “What’s for dinner?” was to become an exciting question with varied answers. Thought and preparation must go into your supper. You must decide that the results you want are worth a little extra thought and effort in the beginning. In no time you will find yourself doing it automatically. Marketing and cooking were relatively new to me—I somehow hadn’t picked up much at home, though there were great cooks in my family—but Dr. Miracle insisted that I would have fun with it. Fortunately, most of my university classes didn’t start until late morning.


  • Water
    Everyone, French and non-French, agrees it is critical and most of us don’t get enough. But it is certainly a boring prospect to gulp down 8 glasses a day as needed. And while many women make a fetish of carrying a water bottle around with them all day, I wonder how many are getting all they need. However much you’re having, more can’t hurt.If you can’t think of reaching 8 glasses a day, for now add two as follows: One big glass first thing in the morning. Few of us realize how dehydrating our sleep time can be. (Perhaps this is one reason why a huge glass of juice—an offender by any standard—seems so good first thing.) A morning glass will not only freshen your complexion, it will help perk you up if you haven’t slept well. And a glass when you go to sleep at night. Dehydration is one cause of bad sleep. If you don’t have a taste for water, try slicing a lemon into the pitcher.


  • Ritual Eating
    Eat only at the table, only sitting down. Never out of cartons: use real plates, cloth napkins, if you have them, to emphasize the seriousness of the activity. Eat slowly, chew properly. (American mothers tell you this but tend to see it as a matter of politeness rather than pleasure.) Do not watch television or read the paper. Think only about what you are eating, smelling, savoring every bite. Practice putting down your utensils between every few bites, describing to yourself the flavors and textures in your mouth. (Don’t let anyone mock you for acting like a French woman—you will laugh last!)


  • Portion Control
    Learn it slowly. Portion size has been a losing battle for Americans, a gastronomic Waterloo, in fact. Cut back gently, especially if your problem is too much of a good thing. Salmon is a wonderful health food, but if you need half a pound to feel content, you need too much. Keep the scale handy and reduce ounce by ounce, until 4-6 oz. seems a satisfying amount to you. This point reveals a key grotesquerie of the protein diet: you can stuff yourself silly with bacon so long as bread doesn’t pass your lips. (Utterly dégueulasse!). As a rule, half a pound of anything in one sitting is too much! You won’t even notice the change in satisfaction, but the bodily change will astound you.


  • Don’t Stock the Offenders
    Some foods we eat automatically in whatever quantity we have on hand. Can’t be content with just a handful of nuts? Don’t keep them in the house! Very few of us will go out just to buy a bag of nuts. If you have them, and keep going back for more, try to apply the preceding principle of progressive downsizing. If your first handful is six, make that the limit. The next time consider stopping at three for the day.


  • Substitution and Pacifiers
    Knowing my biggest problem was sweets, Dr. Miracle furnished a recipe that provided much of the satisfaction at a fraction of the calories. Like all his best prescriptions it has remained useful ever since. Try this Apple Tart without Dough Recipe.


  • Facing Nos Petits Demons
    Discretion is often the better part of valor. Dr. Miracle proposed I avoid trouble makers, in my case of sweets, as a child is taught to walk away from a fight. It is better, he said, if at the beginning you go to school without money, or no more than I would need for the Métro or to buy a cup of coffee. Keep some money where you are going. For me, avoidance of the pastry shops also meant varying my route.If you walk to work, don’t go the same way every day. Variety is important in environment as well as nutrition. Dr. M knew Paris well and would test me on all the monuments, public squares and buildings where famous people lived (Gertrude Stein on rue de Fleurus or Edith Wharton on rue de l’Université). I found myself entering the porte cochère (those large porch doors) of every beautiful hôtel particulier on my route to the Sorbonne. No one in my family had been to Paris for more than a brief visit, so they were intrigued as I fell in love with the great city.If your offenders are not lurking in the streets, or your streets are not so compelling, try to stimulate your other senses. One thing drawing me into the patisseries was the heavenly smell of baked goods. Buying some fragrant flowers was not only a treat but a defense. I’d sniff them when I came near a bakery. Since smell is half of taste, it’s hard to crave sweets when you don’t smell them. A sachet of fragrant lavender can also do wonders.


  • Move
    Perhaps you live in a place where driving is the norm. Or perhaps you don’t have occasion to walk every day. That does not change the fact that one’s weight is determined by two variables: what you consume and what you burn off. Dr. M knew I didn’t like sports (most French women don’t), but I still needed to me remuer (move my butt). A twice-a-day 20-minute walk to school was the perfect remedy for me. If you live too far from work or school to walk, try walking part of the way. Or take a half hour walk at lunch or after dinner. A walk not only uses calories, it can be wonderfully meditative, clearing your head and making you less vulnerable to eating for psychological comfort. The key is to add moderately to your daily physical exertion . If you use an elevator, try taking the stairs instead. Over the course of a week the added calories are significant, but the added trouble is minimal.


  • “Never be Hungry”
    One of Dr. Miracle’s wisest prescriptions, it is especially important in the first weeks of recasting as your body is learning the new world order. Hunger is distracting and unpleasant, almost as much as being bloated or stuffed. You should no more skip meals than you would skip filling your gas tank—you’ll only be stranded later. Our aim is not to challenge the laws of physics. Feed it reasonably and on schedule and your body’s engine is less likely to answer you with screaming hunger. Strict attention to this principle is key until we’ve tamed our mind.One vital secret of hunger management Dr. Miracle taught me was yogurt. Not the sugary supermarket kind, but the real stuff, strained, which is not only of superior texture and flavor, but full of the bacteria essential to health. It isn’t readily available in America, unless you live near a dairy. But you can make it yourself once a week according to an incredibly easy recipe. Dr. Miracle prescribed 2 servings a day during recasting, to be had as I wished: With breakfast, as a dessert or a snack. A little honey or wheatgerm or fresh fruit made it seem more like a treat, but when I developed the taste I began to love it plain, for its silky, creamy tartness. These two yogurts eaten just when I knew hunger would strike were a terrific pacifier.


  • En-Cas
    We also had to have some provision for off-site emergencies. Dr. M explained what he called my “en-cas” (literally “in case”…of hunger attack). It was so simple: always have a little something in your pocket, something your body would register as a “mini-repas” (snack). It’s not only handy but a powerful psychological deterrent. It shuts up my petits démons. Knowing it was there made me less anxious, less likely to crave. When I did break out the en-cas, enjoying it left me less hungry at dinner time. Compensation. I still carry it: a small bag of soy nuts, that nowadays often appears when my flight is delayed. It should be something good for you but satisfying.


  • Weekend Rewards
    Dr. Miracle understood only too well that we are fragile beings in a world full of temptations. Deprivation is the mother of failure. Any program that your mind interprets as punishment is one your mind is bound to rebel against. Whether your pleasure is a glass of wine with dinner or a croissant for breakfast, you simply cannot deprive yourself for extended periods of time and not expect your body to take revenge. And so even during recasting, your body needs a Sabbath.Mind you, we are not talking about an all-you-can-eat bender, during which you consume everything you managed to abstain from all week. But rather a day of rest when you can enjoy a civilized share of some favorites. Some diet authorities advise, don’t reward yourself with food, but I say it’s ok so long as the food is rewarding: no junk, quality, respectfully savored.Dr. M said it was better to stray on Saturday and go back to the plan on Sunday in order to start the new week on the right track. And it made sense in my case. While I was a student I was often invited for Saturday supper at the home of some rather fancy friends in Paris. They had a full-time cook—an extraordinary luxury anywhere—whose elaborate offerings made it very difficult to pick among my vices. (You can see why I held onto these friends!) Dr. Miracle’s answer: “Mais, Mireille, fais preuve d’ intelligence” (just use your head). If a glass of Champagne as aperitif and a dessert seem too good to resist, have them but then don’t eat bread. Making choices that are meaningful to you is the essence of the French woman’s secret.During this phase of recasting, I was especially worried about going home for Easter in a few weeks and facing an elaborate holiday feast with my family, who were naturally less discreet than my fancy friends in Paris! I was already on the right track, and having lost about nine pounds, didn’t want to draw attention to myself or to any change in eating habits. Dr. Miracle rightly advised that nobody would notice if I ate my foie gras, skimped on most of the various breads, helped myself to just a few French fries and enjoyed dessert. The next day, you’ll compensate, he said, very matter of factly. He was telling me to be the master of my pleasures as well as my restraint.Still, I had a lingering question about where this was going in the long run. Alas, it was those demon offenders again. I knew I could keep them on this short leash for only so long. When could I reintegrate them into the school week without bringing on my downfall? True, I wasn’t suffering, but the good doctor had promised a life of more indulgence. And I was of the irrepressible generation of May 1968, whose rebellious slogan was “il est interdit d’interdire“: “it is forbidden to forbid.”The answer, I would learn, was in the words “petit” and “peu,” which both mean “a little.” You can have “de tout un peu et de peu pas beaucoup,” meaning you can have a little of everything but in small portions. As I was proud of my results, but beginning to feel slightly under privileged he made a minor adjustment: twice a week at lunch—which was normally at a sidewalk café with friends who, like me, couldn’t handle the food of the restaurant universitaire (the cafeteria) —I could eat the little piece of dark chocolate (un palet or carré) that came with my espresso. I could pick the days but not go over twice a week. Learn to pick your moments: after a hard test in the morning, I needed it. Ditto after declamation exercise in front of the class! It was a minor adjustment that gave me a big psychological lift. And it was my first peek of the power of slight re-calibration. Little changes can make big differences in the long run.


  • Zipper Syndrome
    By Easter, my recasting was complete. And I felt new things had become natural. Even now I don’t recall it as a savorless time of deprivation. But what had I accomplished? What can you expect to accomplish? I was down about twelve pounds, half of what I needed to lose. Mais attention—I wasn’t getting on the scale every day to track my progress. Scales are not a universal fixture of French bathrooms as they are in America. And they can be dispiriting indicators of progress. A woman gains weight with water retention during part of the month. Our weight can vary for other reasons, too, (time of day, for instance) that have little to do with whether we are eating in balance. I did confirm the loss of kilos from time to time, but mainly I learned to be more attentive to the look and feel of my body in my clothes. I could see it was changing. And when the scale registered my loss of 12 pounds it was only confirming what I seemed to know. I still find getting into some slim-cut pants the best indication of pounds melting—much easier, more reliable and sexier. Use what French women call le syndrome de la fermeture éclair, “zipper syndrome,” or use a measuring tape.Your equilibrium weight, as we have said, is very personal, depending on many factors, like age, body type and time of year. Likewise, improvements are relative, not absolute. Just as French women do not count calories, they mainly do not count pounds. You will have a sense after three months of recasting how far you have yet to go. If you feel you have met about half your goal, your recast has succeeded. If not, consider how far you are and continue for a few more weeks. Be wary of unrealistic goals—we can’t all be model thin. Look for a few more tradeoffs. A further reduction of some offenders (guaranteed to be easier once you’ve already done it once). An additional ten minutes of walking a day. Adjusting by small amounts is always the key to moving to your equilibrium.To empower this program fully requires that you embrace the rule of the quality over quantity. Learning to cultivate quality is what we’ll consider throughout the site as we take up assessment, then stabilization—a time when, remarkably, you will be enjoying more pleasures and still losing weight.