Michael J. Muschel, MD FACC MS
Open the newspaper, turn on the radio or television, or read the magazine covers in the checkout line at the supermarket and you’ll be bombarded with tips and tricks for weight loss. Eat for your blood type, or only raw produce, or no carbs, or protein shakes, or powerhouse smoothies. Our country has a mind-boggling obsession with WHAT to eat for weight loss but precious little focus on HOW to eat.
This point was driven home powerfully during my recent trip to Southern France. On the final day of the trip, members of our tour group sat and reminisced about the week we had spent together and discussed what each of us found the most interesting. What did I find particularly interesting? A quizzical look on our tour guide’s face one afternoon.
Let me explain. We were returning from shopping and browsing in a small village market. As we boarded the tour bus, our guide – a genteel and elegant French woman – stared at something in the hands of one of the members of our tour. “Where did you get that?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s very unusual since most stores wouldn’t sell that here.”
The item in question? A cup of coffee in a paper to-go cup. “Look out the window at the people on the street,” the guide continued. “Do you see anyone holding a coffee to-go? Certainly not!” And she proceed to explain that in Provence, a person who wants coffee sits down in a cafe, often in the company of another, and is served coffee. Seated. At a table. The coffee is served in a china or ceramic mug. That’s the way the French people drink – with more attention to HOW than to WHAT. And that’s the way they eat.
What a great lesson. It brought to mind the cardiologist’s “French paradox”– the famous observation that the French do not have much heart disease, especially considering the croissants, butter, creamy dressings, and desserts that are staples of their cuisine.
Could the regular intake of red wine, with its heart-protective antioxidant compounds, explain this? Maybe. But an equally compelling explanation is the French way of eating, which contrasts dramatically with the eating habits in the US and other Western countries. This not a new observation, nor even my own. Mireille Guiliano, wrote her best-selling book, “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” based on this idea. For me, seeing the idea live, looking at that busy pedestrian-packed street with nary coffee cup to be found, eating rich dinners French-style for an entire week in a French chateau, and taking mental notes was uniquely instructive.
What are some of the characteristics of French eating? They are eating-related practices that reflect mindful eating that is never distracted or absent-minded, hurried, or multitasked.
The phrase “mindful eating” refers to being actively engaged and fully present in our culinary experiences. In contrast, mindless eating implies the very opposite, eating when distracted and without full awareness, a practice that can cause you to eat too much.
I have a new commitment to eat more like the French, and be slimmer and healthier for it. I encourage you to give it a try.
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