French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano

Three stars, read January/February 2013.

Guiliano is a little smug about the brilliance of the French, and that is worth an occasional eye-roll. I also can’t help but doubt just a tiny bit that unhealthy eating habits are quite so rare in France as she claims they are (but then again, the book was written almost ten years ago and I’m sure it’s possible that Europeans, with their millenia of food traditions to steady them, have taken a little longer to fall into the traps that Americans have known so well for decades now). In any case, regardless of whether or not the philosophy of this book is exclusively French, it is practical.

The premise is very simple: That health is about balance, not deprivation or paying for gym memberships. It’s not about hitting a certain number on the scale, or cutting out carbs or dairy—in fact, Guiliano thinks those are terrible ideas. If you like a food, you shouldn’t cut it out of your diet. All you need to do is eat it moderately, in the context of a balanced lifestyle. When you want to indulge, do it consciously—without guilt, and with true appreciation so that you’re satisfied with less of it—then do something to compensate for it. Eat some extra chocolate, add a few minutes to your daily walk. If you know you’ll want dessert, skip the appetizer. It’s just a matter of finding your personal equilibrium and learning to maintain it.

Mireille Guiliano grew up in France, and when she came to America as an exchange student, she picked up a lot of bad eating habits and gained weight. When she went back to France her family doctor helped her get back to her equilibrium, and she’s never had problems with weight since—despite the fact that her job requires her to eat out, with wine, about 300 days a year. She shares that same process here, and it is a reasonable, manageable process. A few of the points she depends on:

  • French women eat smaller portions of more things.
    American women eat larger portions of fewer things.
  • French women don’t eat “fat-free,” “sugar-free,” or anything artificially stripped of natural flavor. They go for the real thing in moderation.
  • French women do stray [in the sense of cheating on a “diet”], but they always come back, believing there are only detours and no dead ends.
  • French women don’t diet.
  • French women never let themselves be hungry.
  • French women never let themselves feel stuffed.
  • French women walk everywhere they can.
I’m skeptical of the leek soup fast, but the book itself—with its lack of charts and color-coded lists that you can just flip to—is deliberately representative of Guiliano’s Gestalt philosophy, which is that healthy eating is all about lifestyle. It’s not counting calories and pounds; it’s not guilt and“cheating.” It’s understanding how to appreciate food, being connected to your body, drinking water, getting the right amount of sleep, and being physically active in ways you enjoy. “French women avoid anything that demands too much effort for too little pleasure.” That sounds pretty good to me.
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