It’s 5:05 PM on a typical Wednesday afternoon in our sleepy village in the Beaujolais region of France. School is a half-day on Wednesdays, which means that the second half of the day is dedicated to local clubs geared towards keeping kids active, in our case it’s basketball.
My wife is playing taxi driver, which also comes standard on Wednesday afternoons. She’s on her third trip home from the gym, her passengers on this leg being our youngest and two of his classmates, an adorable set of seven-year-old twin girls.
Background: In France, every afternoon contains a common staple known as le goûter (pronunciation: luh goo-TAY / translation: the mid-afternoon snack).
“Le goûter” takes place between 4:00 and 5:00 PM and has its origins with Louis XIV in the XVII Century. Pre-Louis XIV, the standard eating schedule for the French was to eat breakfast between 9:00 and 10:00 AM, work all day, and then dine between 5:00 and 7:00 PM.
Louis XIV, aka The Sun King, divinely added a third meal to the day, choosing to eat at 8:30 AM, 1:00 PM, and then dine at 10:00 PM. As most peasants and workers couldn’t last until 10:00 PM to eat their last meal, a moment of digestion, known as “Le goûter,” was inserted into the French daily gastronomical chart.
In its most basic form, “Le goûter” was initiated to keep the French from eating too much before bed. The word “dinner” at the time of Louis XVI was non-existent. You would not “dine” but rather “soup.” Hence, the need for a influx of energy mid-afternoon to carry you through the remainder of the school or work day.
Fast-forward from Louis XIV to 2018 and the backseat of my wife’s scratched-up Citroen minivan hauling three seven-year-olds. Seeing as it’s the afternoon and the children have just finished an hour-long basketball practice, she has packed along “Le goûter” for the drive home from the gym. She promptly produces three french pastries as soon as the children hop into the car.
Two of the three children accept the treat without reservation, one of them being the seven-year-old American. However, the third in the group declines while simultaneously protesting to her twin.
“I don’t think Grandma is going to be happy about this!” she spunk-fully launches at her sister.
Grandma (aka Mamie) would indeed not be happy about this backseat treat. After all, it’s 5:05 PM, which is a full 35 minutes past “Le goûter” plus she had already provided a first treat to be eaten during practice. A second would undoubtedly wreak havoc on this poor seven-year-old’s digestive track for the rest of the night. It seems dramatic, but it’s precisely what the French believe.
This moment, this backseat rejection of a treat from the local patisserie by a seven-year-old, is a perfect representation of why the French will never get fat.
French eating habits, you quickly learn as an American in France, are more closely observed than the Ten Commandments and holier than the Trinity. Our French friends tell us “It’s not about not eating,” every time we bring up this seeming anomaly. “It’s about instilling healthy habits,” they say matter-of-factly.
In the United States the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. In France they’ve managed to insert a regimented diet into the mix.
The French eating habit (aka diet) consists of a 4-step digestive schedule that resembles a caloric bell curve:
- Breakfast: Light (example: coffee or hot cocoa with a breakfast pastry)
- Lunch: Heavy 3 to 4-course meal (example: salad, meat with 1–2 sides, cheese, dessert, coffee)
- Gouté: Light snack, usually sweet (example: cake or pastry)
- Dinner: Very Light (example: soup, vegetables, or just breathing)
Going beyond the slim national silhouette that such a diet produces, the greatest habit the French learn through this routine is something that most Americans lack entirely: the ability to hear what their body is telling them.
If French women and men and children don’t get fat, it’s because they’ve been raised to understand how food and their bodies coexist. Conversely, in America we’ve been raised in caloric chaos. If you disagree, then I politely invite you to reference this map from America’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
When it comes to terrorizing facts about obesity in America, there’s well more than a baker’s dozen. Again, from the CDC’s Report, here are just a few:
- More than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults suffer from obesity.
- The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008.
- 17% of U.S. children are obese, affecting about 12.7 million kids and adolescents.
As an absolute nonprofessional in the medical field, simply an American that’s been able to step out of the system, I think what we find at the foundational level of these deathly statistics is that, in America we’re deaf to our bodies. We eat whenever we want, whatever we want. If we don’t like how we look, then we engage in often extreme diet or workout regimens that have no lasting power when it comes to developing what the French have built into their DNA: habit.
“In America, smoking is a moral issue, but over-eating is not” one of our European friends recounts one night over dinner. “In France, over-eating is the moral issue (and smoking is not, obviously).”
Therein lies the key to the seven-year-old’s response. It’s not just about what Mamie will think, it’s that accepting a second pastry in the backseat of a car in France is akin to smoking a joint behind the school grounds.
Over-eating, over-indulgence is seen here as a disease, which it is. In America, we too often consider it a past time or, worse, an antidote to the woes that come from a non-stop pace of life. Therein lies the secret why the French will never get fat and Americans will never get skinny.
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