It's true, the french are much thinner, have far better complexions, and live much longer than we do. Their population life expectancy is 81.46 (male: 78.35 years female: 84.73 years (2012 est.) , as compared with the US, at 78.6 years. Although, for a population with such healthy eating habits (and yes, I am including their consumption of fatty foods in healthy), they certainly could use some help in some areas. For one thing, I haven't been able to walk past the french high school once without having to dodge cigarette buds on the ground or cigarette smoke wafting through the air on every side of me. Not only that, but most french students that I have met, have told me they've been drinking alcohol since before they were legally allowed. Which, of course, is normal for us in America too, but that usually means we get a little crazy in the last few years of high school...not age 14, which is the age most french students I've spoken to have started "partying". This could be a good thing, in that it's not seen as so foreign to drink, and perhaps it encourages frenchies to relax around alcohol and not abuse it like which happens often in the US at frat houses, binging pre-games. But, based on scientific studies, alcohol does inhibit brain development, especially in adolescence, and both smoking and alcohol can cause mouth, liver, throat, lip cancer. Aside from the smoking and drinking, though, and their extreme lack of desire to exercise, the rest of the french lifestyle appears to be extremely positive in terms of good health.
And, I think it's important to recognize that this "French Paradox" isn't really all that difficult to understand after all. Take away the smoking and alcohol and observe, as I have after living here for about 3 months now, the rest of their lifestyle and you'll see they're quite good at living. In fact, every other part of their lifestyle proves perfectly why they live as long as they do and why they are healthy.
It is easier to eat healthy in France than it is in America as well, because the abundance of unprocessed, healthy, fresh foods is more prevalent.
Here are my observations of the healthy french lifestyle:
1. Less stress. The French walk more slowly, take time to smell the roses (literally), enjoy sitting down to eat, and overall keep things in perspective more than Americans, in my view. It's extremely rare to find a french person walking down the street with a coffee-to-go cup or eating a sandwich while standing up. It's also rare to see a person running down the street to get to their job. Stress has been shown to increase blood pressure, lead to heart disease, and even obesity (go figure).
When's the last time you took a stroll in the park, or ate your sandwich on a blanket? Sat down at a cafe for a good 2 hours? We are often so caught up with success in America, that we forget to appreciate the beauty of life and relaxation in general. To an extent, it seems that even though the french hold jobs, every day is a little bit of a vacation.
2. They're not afraid of fat. Fat is good for you. Wait, what? Who said that? I did. Saturated fat has been wrongly accused of wreaking havoc on our health in the states, but in fact there are a lot of reasons which make fat good for you. Fat lets you know you are full, it is essential for brain development, and aids in digestion and absorption of important minerals and vitamins. For example, when consuming whole milk and whole fat cheeses, lactose (the sugar naturally found in dairy), is more easily digested. Also, Vitamins A and D are also fat-soluble vitamins, which makes Skim milk with Vitamins A and D added a huge joke. The body cannot absorb either of these vitamins without fat to aid in the process.
The french eat fat all the time-- butter in the morning, pastries galore, cheese sandwiches, cheese plates with dinner, nuts, olive oil, milk, cream, you name it.
3. Their portions are smaller. They eat nutrient-dense foods in small portions. In America, we're used to eating on the run, and there is not usually a routine. We're fully comfortable with snacking throughout the day, eating huge portions in restaurants, including adding "dessert" to our meal after lunch nonetheless. If we order a pasta dish, it takes up the entire plate. Here, they believe in portions. A handful of pasta, a handful of salad, a handful of veggies. Then a wedge of cheese and a fruit....then maybe a small chocolate cake.
4. They eat at the same time every day. Having a routine really helps to concentrate your focus on other things besides food. Waking up, eating breakfast before 10am, lunch between 12 and 2, dinner at 7pm every day has enabled me to get used to minimal snacking, and my body has as well. After dinner I'm not hungry to snack anymore, because I'm not used to having food after that time, which makes me get better sleep too.
5. They walk. I live 30 minutes away from where I go to school and it's all uphill, so in the morning after breakfast it's easy for me to work off those calories. For the rest of the day until I return back home for dinner, I am walking constantly, whether it is to classes or the post office, or just meandering around the town.
6. They buy their groceries often, and they don't come from bags and boxes. The fresh markets here are everywhere and happen daily. My host mom likes to get endives, cheese, fruit, salad, fresh meats, nuts from the markets and then she makes her own yogurt homemade every week. Spices and herbs are essential in french dishes, and are anti-inflammatory, healthy. It's been a quite cleansing experience being away from the gross processed food that dominates our plates in the US and is all too easy to purchase. In fact, on the occasion that she gives us "Danette" or chocolate pudding with our fruit for dessert, I always pass it down with a "non, merci" because I can't stand the taste of the additives.
7. They are Non-GMO and proud of it. The GMO debate is less known by Americans, and less cared about. Here in France, however, it's a different story. People know that GMOs are bad, and will tell you right away that they do not want to eat them. Everyone I've talked to about it agrees. Laws were passed in France that prohibit GMO food from being sold in restaurants, grown in France in general, so it's been comforting not to need to check labels here or ask farmers, you just know.
8. They enjoy a healthy amount of wine.
And perhaps, more importantly to note, the quality of the grapes used to make the wine. After taking a tour of an organic vineyard in the south of France, I learned a lot about how the traditional methods used to grow the grapes for the wine has been tarnished by industrialism in many ways. In an effort to feed the growing demand of Rose for example, many vineyards were neglecting the essential methods needed to get the correct color and flavor, and instead compensated by selling lower quality Rose with red coloring and fake flavoring. The old methods are best for taste and flavor. For the most part, France is excellent in this sense, and due to the awareness of this trend in the past 10 years, most of the wine you'll find here is very high quality.
9. Their products and lifestyles lack chemicals.
Check the ingredients on anything here-- from soap to cookies at the local grocery store-- and they're usually fewer than 5 ingredients at the most. Chemicals have come up as sources for cancer over and over, and we are overwhelmed by their presence in the States. Here it's easy to see the sources of food and materials, and it's quite comforting.
Because people demand good quality food, they get it. In America, we have so many industries telling us what to eat, who make it cheaper to eat unhealthily. It is unfortunate that if we want to eat non-GMO food, we have to buy organic at a much higher price. It is also unfortunate that many don't know what the difference is.
For the greatest country on earth, we as Americans could really use some tips from the French on how to live healthier lifestyles.