The big question is why
As a clinician and clinical nutritionist coming from America I was quickly struck by the lack of obesity in the Paris population. I cannot speak for the rest of the country, but Parisians are quite thin. Oh there was the occasional individual with a bit of excess flesh, but on the whole, overweight was uncommon and obesity was rare. The only ‘fat’ people I saw were the tourists!
It turns out that the statistics are 10% obesity rate in France, as opposed to about 35% here in the US. The big question is why. This question was formed a month before my journey when a patient, visiting Paris, wrote me an email despairing of finding gluten-free, dairy-free food while in Paris. She asked my opinion as to why Parisians were so thin, despite their liberal intake of bread, butter and cheese. Therefore, upon my arrival, I was already primed to notice the thin Parisians. Now the million dollar question—why?
They Walk a Lot, and Quickly
Paris is a relatively small city and, perhaps like many cities such as New York and Rome, the citizens do a great deal of walking. I also noticed that Parisians not only walk a lot but they walk quickly. There were few “strollers” in Paris. They had somewhere to go and they seemed intent on getting there quickly! As an aside, they look quite elegant while doing it; gentleman and ladies both clad in their signature scarves, well heeled in good looking shoes, men in their suit jackets and ladies looking quite chic regardless of what they are wearing.
On a female note, women were elegant but quite simple in their appearance. Most everyone is a brunette, I only noticed when I saw a blonde child and realized that I hadn’t seen a blonde or red headed adult the entire time I was there—tourists aside. Women often had their hair back in a simple pony tail, no fancy blow outs, and almost no makeup, etc. Tattoos were absent from view as well, unlike my area of the world in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, where they are in ready display.
They Smoke a Lot
Smoking is rampant. And while I cannot say that “everyone” smokes, it certainly seemed that way. Is that a dangerous secret to their thin frames? Would Paris balloon up in weight if everyone stopped smoking? I wonder…
They Eat Small Quantities
Smoking aside, quantity of food is also a component. I would say that the meals I received were easily half the size of a typical American meal, if not a third. Therefore simply from a calorie standpoint, Parisians are eating half the calories of Americans.They also really enjoy their meal, chatting with friends and eating slowly. It is well known that eating slowly makes you feel full faster and you therefore tend to eat less. Plus, being relaxed and enjoying your food decreases stress hormones and raises your metabolism.
The French, and the Italians, are very good at enjoying meal times. The quality of food, as you may know is generally much better in Europe. The animals are not fed the chemicals and hormones found in the US and GMO is illegal. There is another benefit, little to no fast food. I was there two days before I saw my first McDonald’s and Subway and only once saw someone eating fast food on the street. While Starbuck’s is present, I never once saw the ever present four inch tall whipped cream coming out the top of a cup—something frequently seen in the US. Did I survive gluten and dairy-free and maintain my vegan status? I did. Was it easy, no, I can’t say it was.
Paris for me was about the architecture, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Opera House and of course the amazingly beautiful gardens and shops. While I’m sure the food is amazing and I certainly enjoyed eating French food as a child growing up in Manhattan, the meat, dairy and gluten, certainly doesn’t align with my current eating habits. My lingering questions are: What percentage of the Parisian population smokes and what is the incidence of lung cancer in the city?
Well I have returned home and have done a little research on the subject: As regards deaths from lung cancer, France rates quite high – 23rd out of 192 countries reported – that puts them in the top 12%. Here at home we rank 9th on that same list, putting the US in the top 5% of deaths from lung cancer.They smoke more but we die more from lung cancer, go figure.
And while European countries have an average of 29% of their population as smokers, the US has 19%, but Russia and Eastern Europe top the charts at about 40%. Clearly, smoking alone does not result in a thin frame. And while it may cause lung cancer, life expectancy results don’t align with the countries who smoke greater quantities.
In a list of all countries in the world, the longest lived are those from Monaco, with Italy ranking 11th, France a close 15th, the United Kingdom 29th, Germany 28th and the US a dismal 42nd. I also wonder what percentage I would find to be gluten sensitive, since they definitely enjoy their baguettes, croissants and pastries.
As far as their lean frames, I believe the ‘ethnic’ of the country is to be thin and that is the acceptable ‘norm’. Does that alone make someone not overweight? Hard to know, but combined with a lot of exercise, small portions, dining slowly (and enough cigarettes to numb anyone’s appetite), I believe that at least explains some of it. I also can’t help but remember a rather famous quote from a book on why French women are thin: “The first bite of dessert is always the best.” In other words, savor that first bite, enjoy it and pass the rest on to someone else. What would happen in America if we all did that?
My takeaway is that smaller portions make an obvious difference combined with a lot of exercise on a daily basis. Obviously, smoking is always a bad idea and should be avoided. I am currently on my way to Italy where I will observe the happy Italians and report back what I learn! If you need to lose weight you don’t need to move to Paris to do it.
Dr. Vikki Petersen, a Doctor of Chiropractic and Certified Clinical Nutritionist, is founder of the renowned HealthNOW Medical Center in Sunnyvale, California. She is co-author of The Gluten Effect: How “Innocent” Wheat Is Ruining Your Health
a bestselling book that has been celebrated by leading experts as an epic leap forward in gluten sensitivity diagnosis and treatment.
HealthNOW Medical Center serves San Jose, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Mountain View – and all cities of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.It is also a Destination Clinic, treating patients from across the country and internationally.