The What “French Women Don’t Get Fat” author Mireille Guiliano taught me about eating for pleasure and how to bring joy to your life around food.
Growing up in New Zealand during the 2000s, you got 3 foreign language choices in high school: Maori, Japanese, and French.
I remember picking French because it was the closest to English. As I learned more about the French language, culture, and history, I become one of those insufferable Francophiles. You know, the kind who listens to French
It was no surprise that when the book French Women Don’t Get Fat hit the shelves and shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List I picked up a copy.
Considering the book’s impact on my life, I thought it would be fitting to write an article about how Mireille’s ideas in French Women Don’t Get Fat influenced my cooking and eating habits to celebrate my 100th post on Garlic Delight.
The book felt electrifying
French Women Don’t Get Fat was minimalism before minimalists were cool.
It was anti-diet and radical.
She started a movement that spawned thousands of copycats and riffs. Books including The Fat Fallacy: The French Diet Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss, Chic & Slim: How Those Chic French Women Eat All That Rich Food And Still Stay Slim, Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat, and even books like French Women Don’t Sleep Alone were published following her lead.
Countless copycat blogs launched to teach you the
As a teen, I gobbled up every word
I hunted down leeks and cleaned them just like she instructed in the Magical Leek Soup recipe. I savored the leek soup all weekend and pretended to enjoy the taste even though, secretly, it smelled to me like sweet fart water.
I made yogurt from scratch and strained it to make Greek yogurt, which was hard to find in New Zealand grocery stores back then.
I read Mireille’s book cover to cover more times than I remember.
The food diary was an eye-opening experience.
Did I really eat all those Cadbury eggs on auto-pilot? Was I really buying all those lamingtons after school? Did I really eat chips that frequently?
Much like a financial diary, the first time you write down what you’re eating and spending is the first moment of awakening. It leads to life-altering questions like:
- Would this additional bite make you happier?
- Are you eating because you’re hungry or because you’re dehydrated?
- Are you eating (or buying junk) because you’re unhappy or stressed?
- How can you eat (or spend) for happiness, not compulsion or addiction?
The book worked wonders for me. It introduced a world of firsts, including exotic ingredients (snails?), home cooking, and farmers markets.
I still got fat in America
Despite all my learnings from Mireille, the Freshman 15 hung onto my waistline. And eventually, it bloomed into a “Graduate 30” and more. I tried working all the strategies from every angle. I repeated the food diary and the Magical Leek Soup with religious fervor.
I even met Ms. Guiliano in Los Angeles at a Barnes and Noble. She was on a book tour promoting her cookbook. I got her to sign all my books.
Heck, I even emailed her for advice. In true French women style, she gave me a hard slap of no-nonsense wisdom:
Sad to hear that you’ve gained weight…been there done that but you’ve reached the limit (after that it becomes more difficult to shed and yoyo diets seem to go on through life) so take action NOW.
I remember being in NZ in the summer months so you have no good excuse but get started…if you can’t do the leeks no problems but you should do a day of no school with a soup day to detox…good veggies soups are easy to make (see my recent 3 ingredient soup) or you can buy good ones. The try to apply the 3 meals and eat at the table ie sitting/chewing and 20 mn and not multitasking and mix it with exercice…try to do a 20 minute walk when you get up (before you eat is best as you’ll burn the extra fat as opposed to using the food you just ate) and try to walk 10 minutes after lunch and dinner. If you can add biking, swimming or even 20 mn yoga or aerobics 3 times a week it would help…
I hope this helps. Bonne chance. You did it so you can do it again learning to make it a lifestyle change rather than just losing weight.
How I got back into healthy eating habits
You know this story has a happy ending. As I write this article, I’m in the best shape of my life, in terms of weight and body composition. I don’t ever weigh myself unless I’m at the doctor’s office, and amazingly the needle is always within a 5-pound range.
Honestly, I rarely think about dieting or losing weight. And I’m not saying this to brag. If my 22-year-old self saw me fit into my skinny jeans and how little I stress about this stuff now, she’d wonder what the point of all the heartache was for.
So, what worked to get back into shape and adopt healthy habits again? Here are the 3 effective steps I took to turn things around:
- Tweak my mindset
- Recalibrate my diet
- Recommit to “French” eating habits
My goal is to help you get to the other side without paying the high price that I paid. Let’s dive in to learn what worked.
Tweaking your mindset
Thinking you can do it is the first step. It’s also the most important step because it allows you to follow through. How do you believe you can do it? Where does that confidence come from?
More important than the weight loss, Mireille’s was one of the first books I read on how to train your mind. She explained:
Could it be Nature alone? Could the slow wheel of evolution have had time enough to create a discrete gene pool of slender women? J’enMireille Guiliano from French Women Don’t Get Fat
doute. No, French women have a system, their trucs – a collection of well-honed tricks.
She provided a collection of tricks that French women use to train their mind.
- Why less is more (when you choose higher quality)
- Why savoring is the path to winning
- Why temptations are a false choice
- Why eating seasonally is the foundation of a healthy diet
- Why breathing is a key part of keeping the kilos (or pounds) off
While her books aren’t a treatise on Zen Buddhist philosophy, there were many elements you’d recognize from today’s most popular mindfulness and meditation books. Mireille encourages you to play mind tricks on yourself because winning the mental battle will get you more than half way there.
I tried to asked myself the above 5 questions before I ate every meal. Am I savoring what I’m eating? Am I eating seasonally? Am I eating because I’m stressed? If so, I should mediate and not emotionally eat to bury my feelings.
Not every meal I eat is a ritual. Some days are filled with back-to-back meals, where I eat for fuel, not for pleasure. But when I’m about to eat a giant bowl of creamy mushroom pasta with gourmet, home-grown mushrooms, I take a small portion and enjoy every single bite.
Recalibrating my diet
I know this sound so simple that it’s cliché. But it’s not easy just because it’s simple. It’s especially hard to calibrate when we are on vacation or it’s the holidays. Try eating very rich food for 5 days in a row when visiting family and come home to bland vegetables and tasteless tofu.
When you’re on the road or very busy and eating out a lot, it can be hard to reacquaint your taste buds with home-cooked meals that are not overloaded with sugar, fat, and MSG.
Here are the tricks I use to get back on track:
- If I’m cutting back on sugar: I allow myself to eat anything as long as it’s not sweet. That means sandwiches, steaks, noodles. This helps my brain disassociate eating with dessert. After a few days, I go back to eating regularly and find I don’t miss sugar so much.
- If I’m cutting back on carbs: I stock up on my favorite non-carby foods to make sure I have equally appealing options in the pantry. For example, if I’ve been eating a lot of bread and noodles at restaurants, I’ll buy cherries, heavy whipping cream to make masala chai, and dark chocolate. This gives my brain a chance to detox from my need to eat carbs and starchy foods. I go back to eating carbs in about a week after I crave them less.
- During the holidays: It’s easy to get off routine during Christmas and Thanksgiving when we are all encouraged to indulge in mouthwatering meals. Following Mireille’s advice, I sample a bit of everything because I know my brain will rebel if I restrict too much in the short-term. I try to eat a lot of vegetables before eating the sugary or fatty foods. That way, I’m often half-way full (or at least not ravenous) by the time I’m eating mashed potatoes and gravy or pumpkin pie. I’ve made special trips to the grocery store to buy cabbage and broccoli when my in-laws didn’t have any greens unaccounted for during Christmas.
- When all else fails: There are times when I’m so stressed or tired that I don’t want to eat anything except takeout or the easiest (and usually greasiest) frozen foods. In these times, I drink water to make sure I’m not “hungry” because I’m dehydrated and eat a hunger pacifier to fill myself up a bit. Then I just eat whatever I want and start a food diary that lasts for 1-2 weeks. After all, the one meal isn’t going to make a difference. It’s the string of eating habits that will, and there’s no better way to curb bad eating than with awareness.
French eating habits
The long-term commitment to eating healthfully is the toughest part. Because it’s not one heroic effort but a string of decisions that move you in a positive and desirable direction. Here are my favorite “French” eating habits, which are not only practiced by French women but also women from all cultures who I’ve admired over the years because they have a good handle on their health and eating habits.
- Cook as much as possible
- Learn to enjoy vegetables (learning how to properly cook different vegetables goes a long way)
- Move for fun (even a 20-minute walk does wonders for your mental state)
- Sit down at every meal
- Eat slowly
- Focus on saying “yes” rather than saying “no” (instead of saying, “I can’t eat a slice of chocolate cake or pie,” you can say, “I’d rather have this peanut butter and banana crêpe so I’m going to skip the pie today.”
- Laugh and socialize around food and cooking
So, even though Mireille Guiliano has no idea who I am, I can thank her for some of the most profound changes in my life. And on this particular 100th blog post, I hope for nothing less than to “pay it forward” to you.