I recently returned from an 18 day vacation travelling through France (a belated honeymoon) and it made me think a lot about the comparisons between diet and exercise here in the states versus how I saw it in France so I thought I would share those thoughts with you. To be fair, I want to start out by being completely honest about my diet in comparison. It was completely different from my normal diet at home for two reasons: number one the culture/cuisine differences, and number two I was on vacation!
At home I am very careful about my diet. I count calories. I almost always cook meals fresh at home. I eat low carb; VERY rarely do I eat bread, rice, pasta, etc. I eat a lot of protein and vegetables. My vice is I do enjoy a glass or two of wine, but not every night. I love sweets but barely ever have them because I know I have no self control if they are in my house. I don’t get a ton of exercise but I try to make it to the gym 2-3 times a week and usually do fun things on the weekend with the kids that keep us active.
When I’m on vacation I am not so rigid. Against my better judgement I through caution to the wind and allow myself to eat and drink whatever I want. I don’t give a second thought about calories. Here’s my diet in France:
- Breakfast: Chocolate croissant or fresh baked breads with jam and cheese and coffee (hard to find any other items for breakfast in france).
- Lunch: More bread, with cheese and salami from the local markets.. Possible gelato for snack.
- Dinner: 3 course meal (as is common in France) with a starter plate, entree, and dessert. Never left a bite to spare on my plate.
- Dispersed throughout the day: an embarrassing amount of wine (French drink wine dispersed throughout the day with and between meals) and barely any water.
This was my diet for 18 days, except the 3 days I was in San Sebastian, Spain I ate multiple tapas throughout the day instead. Now I’ll admit, I gained a few pounds to be expected. But for all that eating and drinking I did, I expected to gain a lot more!
Here’s where I’m baffled: When I was there I noticed that 99% of the people I saw were thin or in average shape. Very rarely did I see someone who was overweight. And although I know my diet while there was probably more than a French person would have in a typical day, it was pretty common. They definitely do not spend their time worrying about calories and carbs in France. The typical diet there revolves around bread, cheese, wine, cream, and elaborate meals which differ depending on the region. I never saw an item on a menu or even in the grocery store labeled low calorie, low carb, light, low fat, etc. I never found a breakfast at a restaurant other than some sort of bread or pastry item, and believe me I tried. It made me wonder: how is it possible for a culture that has such a high carb, high fat and calorie diet to stay so thin? I have no idea, but here are some things I can guess based on my experience:
- They walk a lot. They seem to spend their free time walking around town rather than sitting on a couch watching TV. To get groceries they walk to the wine shop, to the meat shop, to the fresh fruit and vegetable market, then the cheese shop. It’s all in a different location. My husband and I walked for hours exploring the towns, getting to and from our destinations and we didn’t even realize it was “exercise” because we were so immersed in the culture and the beauty of it all.
- When they are not working they are enjoying their meal for hours, in absolutely no rush to get anywhere. They are not hogging down a huge plate of food like we tend to do here, but instead, taking their time to enjoy it in smaller courses.
- There’s barely any fast food there except for the occasional McDonalds.
- They eat most things fresh from local markets. I barely saw any processed food in any of the areas I went to.
It’s such a change from how it is here! My experience in France really made me want to make some changes to the way that I approach food and activity. It makes me want to seek out small shops or farmers markets that sell fresh, local items. It makes me want to avoid processed food completely. It makes me want to have smaller meals more often and take the time to enjoy it while spending time with my family. It also makes me want to walk more (although I may have to settle with nature trails since we don’t have towns built within castle walls to explore here, unfortunately). Although I still think counting calories and watching carbs is the best way to go in terms of losing weight, this trip was a good reminder for me that there are many other factors that can play a role!
Posted by: Mischa Lorain (Nutritionist)