We look to the French for style, beauty, and overall cool girl inspiration. But people around the globe are intrigued by the country for more than just their effortlessly chic OOTDs. Books like the eponymous French Women Don’t Get Fat, a guide on how to live the French girl’s lifestyle, have become instant bestsellers; viral Tiktoks depict women vacationing in France, eating limitless carbohydrates and alcohol, and feeling better than when they left; researchers have done countless studies on the French population’s eating, exercise, and lifestyle habits for decades.
The fascination with the diet and health habits of a country famous for bread, cheese, and wine stems from confusion and fascination with the paradox that obesity rates are much lower in France (14-15.3% from 2013-2016, according to a Constances study) than in the U.S. (37.9% in 2013-2014, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey), and the rates of heart disease are much lower too. The question is how the French can eat a high-fat diet, focus less on health (gyms, workout studios, and diets are typically less popular than the $450+ billion-dollar wellness industry in the US), and still have lower obesity and heart disease rates. Enter: The French Paradox.
What is “The French Paradox?”
There have been extensive studies done on the French Paradox, a term for the phenomenon that French people drink a lot of wine, eat a lot of cheese, and skip the gym, all while maintaining great health markers and staying virtually healthy. “The French Paradox” was originally coined by researchers in the ‘90s who found that the French lifestyle contradicted much of the research on nutrition and exercise done in the U.S. They deciphered that alcohol and saturated fats are known to be a leading cause of heart disease in the U.S., but are high in the French diet and French people maintain relatively low to normal blood cholesterol levels.
The researchers initially proposed wine consumption as a potential explanation since it was much higher in France than in most Western countries (more on that below). But throughout the past 30 years since the initial research, more information has come to light that may contribute to France’s health rates. Bottom line: There are many factors that explain this “paradox” and can help anyone live healthier lives while still enjoying them. Read on for tips we can learn from French people that you can apply to your lifestyle (AKA maintaining good health while still indulging in a charcuterie board).
Tips to Apply the “French Paradox” to Your Life
Eat quality foods that are less processed
Sure, France is known for their bread and cheese, but that’s not all they eat (even if it’s all you eat when you visit). The French diet is also high in vegetables, fruits, and legumes. So while they may indulge in a wheel of brie or a pain au chocolat on a daily basis, they also are getting high amounts of fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables. The French diet also contains small portions of meat (more often fish or chicken) for healthy protein and other minerals and vitamins. On average, they don’t revert to processed snacks or to-go meals, and they eat minimally processed foods–which includes dairy with all its fat (low-fat yogurt or butter alternatives are actually highly processed: to take out the fat, they have to add in thickening agents, added sugar, gums, or additional toxins).
Food culture is big in France, so they are very mindful about choosing high-quality food (i.e., meat without added hormones or antibiotics) instead of large quantities of highly processed foods that have been stripped of key nutrients (i.e., low-fat dairy). Instead of dieting or counting calories, try to eat as high-quality and whole versions of food as possible: fresh fruits and veggies, meat and dairy products without added hormones or additional processing, and cooking agents such as olive oil or full-fat organic butter instead of highly processed vegetable or canola oils.
More activity, less exercise
French people are gentle with their bodies and prefer to get their activity from sports and outdoor activities. They aren’t big on rigid, structured workouts and prefer to move their bodies in ways that are pleasurable to them and as a part of their lifestyle, rather than designated “gym time.” This means they would rather walk to work or a friend’s house than spend an hour on a treadmill or in a workout class. They also love to play sports as a social activity to bond with friends and meet new people, rather than to burn calories or “tone up.” They capitalize on seasonal activities like skiing or swimming during their long vacations to keep activities varied and fun. Instead of obsessing about squeezing in an hour-long workout in your schedule every day, try moving your body more consistently throughout the day: walk when you can, take movement breaks during your workday, and start moving for fun by getting active on vacations and playing a sport like pickleball with friends.
Drink red wine (moderately)
As previously stated, the initial researchers credited the French Paradox to a high intake of red wine. Red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant with heart-healthy properties. A study also found that wine increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL) markers, AKA “good” cholesterol. It is important to note that similar health effects were not observed from other types of alcohol. Among other wines, red wine contains the most resveratrol, therefore it is the most beneficial for heart health. Keep in mind that benefits are only observed from light to moderate consumption (one to two glasses a day), while a higher intake is linked to harmful effects. The French love their wine, but you don’t see a binge-drinking culture there like you see in university life or partying in the US. It is all about enjoying a glass or two of high-quality red wine. If red wine or alcohol in general is not your thing, you can get resveratrol from grapes, peanuts, blueberries, cranberries, and dark chocolate.
No good and bad foods here! Nothing is off limits for the French, as long as the portions are reasonable. French women don’t count calories, but they won’t be afraid to turn down a macaron every now and then either. They are attuned to their bodies and know their needs, so they allow themselves a few bites of a treat that they truly enjoy whenever they please. Mindfully indulging helps them avoid falling prey to binge-restrict cycles. By being aware of hunger cues, they are able to eat only until they are satisfied, instead of overeating or bingeing on snacks or treats they labeled as “off-limits.”
For the French, mealtimes are an event. They go out for picnics in the park on their lunch break instead of eating at their desk, dinner is a time to reconnect with friends or family, and you’ll rarely see a French woman grabbing fast food or eating on the go. They slow down to really enjoy their food. The country’s wine culture means that they are enjoying time with friends and family every day, which makes mealtimes longer, and allows for food to be savored slowly, instead of scarfed down mindlessly. Remove the stress from your lifestyle by simplifying your food choices and making meals a sacrad time to reconnect with yourself, your body, and your loved ones.
Dr. Debi Johnson is a medical expert and health journalist dedicated to promoting well-being. With a background in medicine, she offers evidence-based insights into health trends and wellness practices. Beyond her reporting, Dr. Debi enjoys hiking, yoga, and empowering others to lead healthier lives.