Over the last 3 years I was able to travel to France a number of times; my son Jake was living in Paris. I fell in love with many things about French culture: their parks, their museums, their clothes, their food, but especially, their French eating habits. I was fascinated to see that the average French woman doesn’t have the same issues around eating and body image that the average American woman has. While French society definitely puts pressure on women to be thin, your average French woman does not dislike her body, does not diet, and is not struggling with the same obsession and anxiety around food that the average American women experiences.
As my French cousin Martine explained, “We enjoy good food every day, and we move on to other pleasures in our lives. We are not obsessed with eating.” I wanted to figure out what was going on in the minds of French women that could account for the way they successfully navigate their body image and eating. We clearly could use some French Eating Lessons on this side of the Atlantic!
French children are taught how to eat
There are many, many differences around food and eating between French and American cultures. The way French children are taught how to eat seems to protect French children from the body image and eating issues that Americans experience. French parents teach their kids cultural eating habits, so they learn how to balance their needs for nutrition and pleasure from a young age. And, since the French parents have also been taught how to eat from their parents, French parents model great eating behavior for their children.
In the US, there are not the same cultural norms and habits around teaching children to eat. Rather, there is a notable absence of rules and behavior around eating which I describe as the Great American Vacuum in my discussion, below. And, most parents don't model good eating habits or body image for their children, leaving their children without guidance on how to eat and feel good about their bodies.
To make matters worse, in the US we have developed a cultural sense of deprivation and guilt around food from our dieting practices over the last 50 years, that the French do not experience. French people simply don't diet, so they have not created a cultural idea of "good and bad" foods -- leading people in the US to feel good and bad about themselves because of what they ate. That is that sense of moral superiority one can feel from "eating clean" or the feeling of anxiety and even self-hatred people feel for "falling off" their diet plan.
French eating habits also attune to the experience of pleasure from food. In the US, we often deny ourselves pleasure in the name of "eating healthy" or "being good" on a diet plan. This makes some of our innate desire for pleasure go underground and come up later in disordered eating behavior. Without a sense of deprivation around food, the French avoid many of the US culture's scarcity-related dieting issues like food obsession, binging, and weight-cycling.
Teaching good eating habits from the start
French children learn French eating habits from an early age, according to Mireille Guilliano the author of the popular French Women Don’t Get Fat. They learn to:
- Eat 3 meals a day, at regular times
- Eat smaller portions of more things
- Focus on the quality of the food
- Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Drink water as a beverage of choice
- Eat slowly -- French meals can go on for hours
- Chew well and savor the taste
- Not to snack between meals
- But they watch their hunger in between meals and will eat something small so not to be ravenous at mealtime
- Not to eliminate foods from their diet, especially the foods they enjoy
French parents also focus on these mentally healthy eating intentions because they realize caring for themselves includes caring for their body and their mind. They:
- Eat with an eye to balancing nourishing their body with enjoying their food
- Eat with an eye to feeling pleasure from each meal
- Eat with an eye to feeling satisfaction from each meal
- Don’t eat anything they don’t enjoy
- Focus on the fun of preparing their food
- Sit down to eat: and don't eat standing up, on the run, or in front of the TV/computer
These guidelines lay a foundation for French children on how to be with food. This structure serves as an inoculation against some of the eating issues we suffer in the US, such as getting disconnected from our body cues of: hunger, satiation, and how foods make our bodies feel. This list also has French people focusing on their feelings of fun, pleasure and satisfaction from the eating experience, avoiding the deprivation Americans experience from denying ourselves these pleasures.
The Great American Vacuum
There is no American counterpart to the framework French children learn around eating. In American culture, there are few if any cultural eating rules. There is little mealtime structure today; often kids eat quickly and get on to other activities. Most parents don’t teach children how to eat. We give them little, if any, information on what to eat, portion sizes, or nutrition.
We don’t focus on the experience of eating as the French do. When American parents do give some instruction around eating, it is often a colorless reciting of vitamin requirements with no fun to be found: “You need to get 4 servings of vegetables per day.” We certainly don’t show kids what enjoying a meal looks like as the French do. We don't often show them the delight in trying new flavors and textures. We don't show them the pleasure of a meal's social experience interacting with friends and family, as French children learn early on.
You can snack all day in most American homes. In the last 50 or so years, US homes have been filled with easily prepared, processed food. Most American families eat out all the time. Often there is little or no cooking going on for meals in US families, just grabbing quick, easy food at mealtimes. The American way to eat has an absence of structure around eating which is the Great American Vacuum.
A 2009 study of French and American child feeding practices found that US parents used food for non-nutritive purposes much more -- as a reward and to regulate a child’s emotions. Non-nutritive food use is linked with the inability to internally regulate one’s own feelings of hunger and satiety. This study believed that undermining hunger in this way was an important factor in the elevated rates of childhood obesity in the US relative to their French counterparts.
French Eating Lessons vs. Great American Vacuum
The Great American Vacuum leaves fertile ground for some of the current, extreme behavior some women experience around eating in the US. Without any eating intentions or structure in place, it is easy for a peculiar diet to sound appealing to a young girl, like when she eliminates all sugar or gluten from her diet. Weird behavior around food and food restricting doesn’t clash with specific norms around eating for an American teenager like it would for her French counterpart.
Some of the bizarre eating behaviors girls experience in high school and college -- binging, dieting, and throwing up the food you just ate -- don’t run up against the same common-sense intuition that has been taught to French children. These behaviors would feel odd to a French girl since these behaviors conflict with everything she has been taught about how to be around food. American girls are ripe to give it a try because there is nothing to conflict with the absence of structure -- the vacuum -- they have around food.
To make matters worse, here in the US, most mothers have their own eating issues. An American mom could be constantly dieting, strictly limiting certain foods, obsessed with her scale, eating to soothe emotions, or locking herself into an unrealistic idea of what she is supposed to look like. The disordered eating epidemic in the US has ramped up in the last few decades because of our Kardashian Culture's obession with appearance. This leaves American girls with few healthy, eating role models. In France, French mothers have been taught to eat the same way they teach their children, so there are many role model options for young, French girls.
French women don't diet
French women don't go on diets because, as Mireille Guilliano explains, French women “avoid anything that demands too much effort for too little pleasure.” French women see the deprivation from a diet as “no way to live.” Mireille thinks American dieting stems from ours being a “country of extremes and denial.” She implies that somehow we Americans enjoy denying ourselves or feel that we need to earn our pleasures.
French women are smart to avoid the dieting trap we've fallen into in the US in the last 50 years (see TIME article below). But there is some good news, there is a movement afoot changing all that. Dieting is developing quite a bad rap in the recent years. Dieting is now considered a risk factor for developing and eating disorder by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Dieting is associated in the research with: weight gain, binge eating, obesity, nutrient deficiencies, body dissatisfaction, and depression. Deprivation and guilt around food that dieters experience are at the core of most of the eating issues women have in the US.
Taking responsibility for their own self-care
French women take responsibility for their own care. According to Mireille Guilliano, a French woman learns: “as an adult, she is the keeper of her own equilibrium” so she doesn’t need to resort to external diet plans to give her instruction. She regulates herself as she has seen her mother do. She feels entitled to take her body's needs for nourishment and pleasure into consideration, again, as she has seen her mother do. She celebrates her hunger and cravings and feels empowered to feed them.
A recent TIME magazine cover feature agreed with Mireille’s message of taking individual responsibility for one’s own eating. The TIME article highlights the idea that a diet which works for one person isn’t necessarily the answer for another person. There is no one size fits all answer for eating. Each person needs to account for her own psychology and behavior in figuring out her own way to eat.
The TIME article joins the overwhelming recommendation from most psychologically-minded eating experts: to listen to your own body and mind, and consider what works for you.
"The real reason French women don't get fat is not genetic, but cultural, if the French subjected themselves to the American extremes of eating [large portions] and dieting, the obesity problem in the France would be much worse than what has struck America."
- Dara R. Musher-Eizenman et al, "Child and parent characteristics related to parental feeding practices. A cross-cultural examination in the US and France," Appetite 52, 2009.
- Mireille Guilliano, French Women Don’t Get Fat (2010).
- Confident Body, Confident Child website
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.