The French Example: Prizing Quality Over Quantity

This column is written from a hotel room in Disneyland Paris, where my wife and I have indulged our children — who worked hard and achieved their school grades — in their long-held desire to experience a Disney park outside the US.

There are, of course, unique shows and rides as well as many features familiar to those who frequent Disney’s US parks. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the clientele here is so much thinner than in the US.

It’s not that the food is obviously less fattening. Rich pâtés are common and pastries are plentiful. Buttery croissants are ubiquitous and wine flows freely. This is not to mention the luscious, creamy cheeses served everywhere.

That the French are thin compared to Americans is hardly a novel observation. Many theories have been proffered: genetics, more cigarette smoking, unique characteristics of red wine, etc. Certainly, it is true that portions are smaller in restaurants, and cities are set up in a way to encourage more walking.

All these theories probably have an element of truth to them. We, however, would cast our ballot for a different theory. Even in advanced, urbanized Paris, the pace of life is different than what we’re used to. People have more vacation and work fewer hours each week when they are working. They cook more and take more time eating. When invited to dine with friends at their homes in France, it isn’t uncommon to have a three-hour repast. There is time to experience satiety and it probably reduces the calories consumed.

The very richness of many of the common foods, including cheese, leads the French to savor small portions. In America, food is not as hearty — compare the bun on a Big Mac to crusty French bread — so we tend to eat more. The French reverence for food, which sounds like a recipe for obesity, seems to play out instead as a recipe for preferring quality over quantity. They like their food pure. A coffee is an espresso, not a triple latte with whipped cream and caramel.

Alas, it may not last. American chains such as McDonald’s and Starbucks are here now. The French government is sufficiently concerned to be running classes in elementary schools to praise the traditional French diet and to look for ways to maintain sidewalk cafes and not give way to fast food.

Whatever the future of French food culture and obesity levels, we can all help our figures, our health and our enjoyment of food by focusing on eating good quality food that satisfies us with just small quantities — which is pretty much the definition of specialty cheese.