Yesterday I uploaded my second YouTube video, in which I talk about a topic I love diving into: French Health Secrets! It seems that ever since visiting France again this summer, I’ve been thinking and writing about this subject even more than usual.
In this week’s video, I break down some of the eating habits of the French in an attempt to crack the code of how the French enjoy such amazing food on a regular basis (croissants, cheese, chocolate…) all while staying thin!
I reveal four very specific tips in the video, so if that interests you–I encourage you to go check it out!
Also, in the video I mention a cheatsheet I put together with 12 French Health Secrets…and here’s the link to grab that PDF.
P.S. If you like this video and want to see more health & wellness videos from me, I invite you to subscribe to my channel so you’re notified every time I upload something new!
I was in France this summer and it’s something I notice every time I’m there: the slimness of the French people. It’s really quite incredible. By now, I suspect we’re all familiar with the French Paradox. It’s the fact that the traditional French diet is filled with goodies we North Americans tend to view as waistline disasters: butter, cream, cheese, croissants, chocolate, rich sauces, foie gras…
And yet, the people of France are slim and gorgeous. When Mireille Guilliano wrote her NYT bestselling book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” many years ago, she attempted to explain this phenomenon to a North American audience. And because I was just in France for our family summer holiday, I’m going to devote the next few weeks’ worth of blog posts to this intriguing phenomenon.
Grab my free PDF cheatsheet: French Health Secrets
HOW THE FRENCH STAY IN SHAPE WITHOUT EVEN TRYING
What I’ve noticed about France is that while there is no shortage of bread and crepes and croissants and wine and cheese (thank heaven!) there is also this little phenomenon: the French don’t exercise.
Not in the way we think of exercise in North America, at least. Here, exercise seems to be synonymous with “the gym”. When I ask patients if they exercise, they always assume I mean going to the gym.
In France, you are hard pressed to find an actual gym.
In the average Parisian block, you’ll trip over ten places to have coffee, get a fresh baguette, watch a film, enjoy a spectacular lunch…but no gyms. There may be a couple of yoga studios or very small boutique fitness studios. But that will be about it. So how are the French staying fit?
EXERCISE À LA FRANÇAISE
This is how the French exercise: they walk. They walk EVERYWHERE. They walk to their local food market—everyday (something I’ll talk about in a future post in this series, because it’s key!). They walk to the cafe, to museums, to work, to meet friends for lunch. The French are constantly out on the streets.
Jogging, non. At least, not as much as you would see in North America. When I go for a run along the Vancouver waterfront—especially if it’s a beautiful summer day—I’m surrounded by a mob of fellow runners (if it’s a rainy day, only slightly fewer). In contrast, when I went for a run in Paris last month along the Seine, there were definitely other runners but not nearly as many as you’d expect (plus a few rollerbladers, clearly transported there from the mid-1990s). I definitely noted more runners this time than I’ve seen in previous visits, although perhaps they were all expats and tourists. In other parts of France, however, I received plenty of confused and vaguely discouraging looks from the locals walkers on the streets when I’d go for a run.
Besides walking, the French also bicycle. Cycling is a passion and a way of life there. We happened to be lucky enough to be in Paris this time when the Tour de France entered the city for the grand finale—an amazing spectacle. Clearly, the French are serious about the sport of cycling. But it’s not just for athletes. You will see all kinds of cyclists in the cities and the countryside alike: women in dresses with little dogs in baskets, schoolboys, men in suits, cycling to work. Paris has a fantastic bike rental system, the Velib, so you can hop on and off a rented bicycle anywhere you want to go.
HOW TO APPLY THIS PRINCIPLE TO YOUR OWN LIFE
You might be wondering: can cycling to the market from time to time really take the place of my gym workouts?
Here’s what the research is showing:
A little while ago, a study looked at the health benefits of riding a bicycle to do errands, like going to the store. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin statistically analyzed what would happen if the 31 million people living in the Upper Midwest did some of their short-distance errands (defined as 2.5 miles one way) by bike instead of by car. Their conclusions? If people ran even half these errands by bike instead of car, 1,100 deaths would be avoided each year. And there would be a $7 billion savings in health-care costs.
So how can we use this information?
Now that we’re in the dog days of summer—which likely means there’s a farmer’s market somewhere in your area—why not be inspired by that French habit of cycling to the market or on short errands? It’s much more stylish and glamorous than taking the car, and it’s a pleasurable way of living…which is something else I’ll be writing about a lot more as we go this month.
If you like the idea of adopting a more French approach to healthy living, I’ve put something together for you: a free printable PDF cheatsheet of French Health Secrets.
Angela was desperate to lose weight. Over the past six months she’d noticed her weight going up but couldn’t figure out why. As far as Angela could tell, she was eating the same things she always had. Her activity level hadn’t changed. So she came to see me, her family doctor, asking to get her hormones checked, thinking maybe that was the problem.
I checked her hormones and a few other things besides. Everything came back normal. We began to peel back the layers and talk about what else had been going on over the past six months.
It turned out Angela had been going through a pretty rough time. She’d been given some added responsibilities at work, and she had also been going through a contentious divorce.
“Sure, occasionally I comfort myself, but there’s no way that accounts for all this weight gain”, she said.
“I think you’re probably right,” I said. “But at the same time, I suspect it is the stress that’s contributing to your weight gain. Here’s what I think is happening.” I went on to explain what I meant.
The truth is, stress is clearly linked to weight gain, but there are several different reasons why. If you’re struggling to reach your happy/healthy weight, here’s why stress may be sabotaging your efforts:
Our bodies are amazing. Long ago, we evolved to survive various threats: a surge of adrenaline sets off a cascade of physiologic changes that help us get away or defend ourselves. You know, the fight-or-flight response. Then, once the danger is passed, one of the hormones—cortisol—triggers our urge to build up our stores again and eat. So we’ll have the energy for the next threat that attacks.
It’s a good system…when there’s actual physical danger.
Now, the danger tends to be less often mortal danger of a predator…and more often a stack of bills that need to be paid. But our systems still function the same. Even once the immediate threat is resolved, there’s still a cascade of responses that happen. Particularly if the stress is sustained.
One of the hormones released in response to stress and danger is cortisol. And cortisol is an interesting beast—it has a few beneficial effects, but many downsides. One is that it triggers our urge to build up our stores again. Assuming we’ve just had to spend a bunch of valuable energy in fighting off a bear, we need to replenish that energy, so cortisol triggers an urge to eat. Helpful when there actually was a bear…less so when it was simply a triggering meeting at work.
And cortisol has other, shall we say, undesirable effects that are even longer-lasting than the urge to inhale an entire buffet. But that leads us to…
2: BELLY FAT
Among other things, cortisol sends signals to our metabolism that we’re going to need to store some of our incoming energy as belly fat. Belly fat, historically and evolutionary-wise, was an excellent adaptation that ensured our survival. A highly resilient way of storing excess energy, it could help us survive a long winter, a famine, a siege from a neighboring village…whatever.
Of course now when fewer sieges happen, it’s less beneficial. Trouble is, it’s what our bodies want to do: evolution selected for those belly fat genes. In days long past, the guy with the most resilient belly fat was the last guy to starve and die when a famine hit. That guy went on to be your ancestor….because all the other potential ancestors died before they could procreate. You got the resistant belly fat genes.
Lucky you, yes?
3: EMOTIONAL EATING
This one is more of a behavioral thing than strict physiology. Anxiety and stress tend to trigger emotional eating and this is a particular problem given our constant and excessive access to food of all types. In previous epochs, stress eating might have looked like you scarfing down an extra handful of nuts and seeds while sitting around the fire, listening to stories. Now, stress eating looks like you taking a sharp left into the Dairy Queen drive thru on your way home from work.
To make things worse, we’re hard-wired to want the worst stuff. High-sugar, high-fat food gives us a dopamine hit: the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It’s rewarding and soothing—at least temporarily. Until the inevitable guilt spiral of shame and self-blame begins.
4: MINDLESS EATING
Stress and worry are highly distracting. Which means they are contributors to another related, yet distinct, eating problem: mindless eating. This is when we are eating without awareness, like an automaton. When we’re too busy in our own heads, tending to those spinning thoughts, we often don’t even notice that our arm keeps raising the fork to our mouth. Ten minutes later we hit bare plate and realize we’ve hardly tasted—let alone enjoyed—a single bite.
5: SLEEP DEPRIVATION
Sleep disruption and insomnia are common, but even more so when we’re stressed. Anxiety disrupts our sleep-wake cycle and messes with our sleep rhythms. As a result, we wake feeling exhausted and beat a straight path to the coffee maker—which can interfere with our sleep the next night, too.
The question is: how is that connected with weight?
It revolves around a pair of neurochemicals, called ghrelin and leptin, that control appetite. Essentially, ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Released by the lining of your stomach, it sends signals to your brain that it’s time to eat. Leptin basically does the opposite by sending a “full” signal.
It turns out lack of sleep disrupts the normal functioning of ghrelin and leptin. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with higher levels of ghrelin, more hunger, and more cravings—especially for carbs. We have more difficulty resisting temptation and sticking to our healthy eating resolve.
There’s a lot more to it, but the research has clearly demonstrated that when you’re sleep deprived, it’s more difficult to lose weight.
But let’s go back to Angela. After unpacking all the stressors in her life and the effect they were having, it was clear that when it came to her weight loss efforts, she would be fighting an uphill battle until she got a handle on her stress.
And maybe you’re in a similar situation. If you think stress is sabotaging your weight loss plans, what can you do about it?
Truth is, there is a lot you can do about stress. I have much more to say about this—stress is one of my favorite topics—but I’ll save the details for future posts.
In the meantime, if you want to get started on managing stress, you can download (for free!) a 2-page PDF checklist with my Top 10 Stress Detox Tools. Just click here to grab it!
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I love collecting tricks and tips to help people stay healthy and maintain a happy weight. Click through to read one of my all-time faves: a very easy trick (…and fashionable, to boot).
Here are some other posts that I put in the category of “weight loss ninja”: