Category: Eat

French Advice for Eating Well During Pregnancy, and Common Myths Explored

Moving to France I heard a variety of bizarre claims about how French women don’t follow the basic dietary laws of pregnancy known to all Anglophone women:

  • “French pregnant women have a glass of red wine each day!”
  • “French women drink loads of coffee”
  • “French women keep eating unpasteurized cheeses throughout pregnancy”
  • “French women barely gain any weight, and after birth they leave the hospital in their pre-pregnancy pants!”

So I have been very curious to find out whether French women follow different guidelines, and whether these statements are true or not. I’ll start by addressing these claims and finish with French lifestyle tips for staying healthy throughout pregnancy.

Myths Debunked: The Forbidden Foods

Sorry ladies, but at least among the locals I know, French women do indeed avoid alcohol, improperly cooked food (cheese, meat, fish), and moderate their caffeine intake. They crave sushi, wine, and brie for 9 months, just like the rest of us deprived English-speaking pregnant folk.

There are some nuances to the guidelines that they know about that many Americans may not. For example, local cheese experts will advise you that only unpasteurized soft cheeses are risky, whereas the hard cheeses of any kind are acceptable. Sometimes a cheese itself can be safe, but the rind (the rigid material surrounding the cheese) may be contaminated. If you walk into a reputable fromagerie (artisanal cheese store), the vendor should be able to tell you which individual cheeses are safe choices.

Also some women are exempt from avoiding undercooked meat, and French women are more likely to fall under into this group. The reason behind consuming only well cooked meat is to avoid a toxoplasmosis infection. Although toxoplasmosis is a mild infection in healthy adults, this tiny organism can cause catastrophic effects on the developing fetus if the mother gets infected during pregnancy. However, if a woman contracted the infection before pregnancy, there is no increased risk to the child.  Since French and European women eat more raw meats in their diet they may be less susceptible to the dangers of toxoplasmosis during pregnancy because they are more likely to have already had the disease. While only 10-20% of women are immune to toxoplasmosis in the United States, some 40-60% of French women are immune, and may therefore enjoy their filet mignon medium-rare. As a family member in Belgium explained to me, “I am already toxoplasmosis positive, therefore I don’t worry about raw meat.”

The only French women that seem to resist modern medical prenatal dietary recommendations are women of the older generation. “Well when I was pregnant I didn’t know about these dangers, and my kids came out fine!” And on the subject of foie gras, “mais il faut vivre!” (you must live a little!) But of the people I know, who are admittedly quite well educated and recently mothers, all followed the rules carefully, and my doctor grilled me for the first few visits to make sure I understood all the recommendations.

Myths Debunked: Prenatal weight gain

One of the biggest myths I’ve heard is that French women are told to follow different pregnancy weight gain guidelines. In actuality, the recommendations are the same: French doctors recommend a net gain of 12 – 15 kg during pregnancy, which corresponds to about 26 – 33 lbs. The real difference is that French women actually tend to stay within or below these limits, and therefore gain less than their American counterparts. For more details on how French women gain weight during pregnancy click here.

This brings me to something the French are doing much better than the Americans: they are fantastic at controlling their diet and weight gain throughout pregnancy. What are their secrets??

French Lifestyle Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

 

The French pregnancy mantra is on n’a pas à manger deux fois plus! This means, don’t eat for two! Dietary advice is publicly made available by the government for all pregnant women with very practical and specific advice. Here are some eating hacks I’ve stolen from the French so you can achieve your belly-only pregnancy!

  1. Add a snack into your daily routine if you find yourself hungry. This assumes you are like most French women who do not snack in between meals (darn that iron fisted self control!).

 

 

The government even gives specific examples of acceptable snacks that I find hilariously French:

French Pregnancy Diet Snacks
Translation: In the clockwise direction the snacks shown are: 1/6th of a baguette + 1 portion of cheese + 1 glass of water, 1 yogurt + 1 banana + 1 glass of water, 4 biscuits + 1 glass of water, or 1 cup of farina/rice pudding + ½ cup of 100% fruit juice.
  1. Meals still need to portion controlled. For an idea of how much French people eat for a major meal, here’s a nice diagram:
French Meal Suggestions Portion Size
Translation in a clockwise direction: an open faced tuna or chicken sandwich + vegetables + yogurt, a vegetable salad with meat/fish/cheese + a piece of bread, a piece of quiche + raw vegetables, and an asian dish with meat skewers + rice + sauteed vegetables
  1. There are three and only three acceptable French ways to increase the size of your meals: (1) Add a yogurt, (2) Eat a piece of fruit, or (3) Eat a larger portion of vegetables.
  2. The French are very concerned with preventing cravings. What is their secret? Make sure to include grains and vegetables with every meal, and spread out your meals throughout the course of the day so you eat the same amount but you are eating more often.  I imagine there’s some serious discipline at work here too although no French person will ever admit that.
  3. Avoid sugary and fatty foods! Increasing your food intake does not mean letting yourself eat unhealthy food. French people will rarely pass judging looks for your food choices, but the one time I walked into a Burger King with my obvious baby bump to pick up dinner for the hubby, I got so many death glares I was truly scared for my life.
  4. If you suffer from heartburn, nausea, or indigestion, start eating more frequent and lighter meals.
  5. Stay hydrated throughout the day.
  6. Don’t forget to move move move! French women do not stop being active when they are pregnant. Here are pregnancy specific French exercise recommendations, or general French lifestyle hacks to include activity in your daily routine.
  7. For more information and tips on general French dietary recommendations, click here.

 

References

  1. See mangerbouger.fr for the official French dietary guidelines for pregnancy, or shoot me a message and I’ll be happy to send you the detailed guide (in French)

Holiday Detox: A Little R&R for the Digestive System

Post-Holiday DETOX - French style

The winter holiday season is over and it’s back to business as usual. After a week of stinky cheese, foie gras, and decadent chocolate (we were in Brussels, just minutes from a specialty Belgian chocolaterie) my digestive system is begging for mercy. As if being pregnant wasn’t enough in the bloating, indigestion, and generally feeling gross department. So for the next couple weeks, I am giving my system a little rest and relaxation.   And since we are in France after all, I wanted to share the delicious and simple meals my family is eating, with a French twist!

We spent the holidays in Belgium and Southern Spain, where I was very inspired by the European/Mediterranean style of serving multiple courses of tapas (small portions), served with built in eating breaks of at least 20 minutes between each dish. This is a smart physiologic way to eat, because it actually takes your brain about 20 minutes to register that you have started eating! And in that time it’s really easy to vacuum in much more food than you need. Plus, eating your food in courses makes you feel that you are eating a more gourmet meal, even if the preparation time was minimal.

Breakfast

  • Oatmeal: This simple dish is fantastic on so many levels. It provides a nutritious source of carbohydrates and keeps us filled for hours.  I simply add boiling water to my bowl of oatmeal and let it sit for 60 seconds.  Then I add a dash of milk to make it more creamy, and top with fresh berries, sugar, or honey.
  • Fresh fruit: On days when we are truly not that hungry in the morning, we’ll just eat one or two fresh fruits in the morning. I got this idea years ago from this hilarious book, Skinny Bitch. It really is an amazing way to jumpstart your digestive system.
  • Smoothies: So versatile, I’ll have this as part of a larger meal, or make it more hearty to function as a full meal.

Super Simple Holiday Detox

Smoothies are a yummy and easy way to get your daily serving of fruit.  I have a basic structure I use to make smoothies, and ingredients that I vary each time to keep it interesting:  (1) For bolder flavoring I add spices like cinnamon or nutmeg.  (2) If I am working with a tart bunch […]

Ingredients

  • 1 banana
  • 1 package berries of your choice (I love raspberries or blueberries)
  • 1 cup nondairy milk (I alternate between soy milk and coconut milk)
  • 1 tablespoon wheat germ (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon sliced almonds (optional)
  • 1 dash cinnamon (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon honey (optional)
  • 1 cup fresh spinach (optional)

Basic Ingredients

    Instructions

    1. Combine all ingredients and blend until you have your desired consistency.

    Lunch/Dinner

    We pick a couple of the following dishes to create an easy multicourse meal. Some of the dishes can be made into more hearty single course meals, I have added suggestions on how to do this where appropriate. Obviously a multicourse meal makes more sense for dinner than lunch for working people, so for lunch I choose one of the following and follow it up, French style, with a yogurt and piece of fruit for dessert.

    • Beet and goat cheese salad

      Beet and Goat Cheese Salad

      Beet Goat Cheese Chevre Arugula This salad is beautiful, flavorful, and highly nutritious.  I buy organic beets ready cooked and peeled so I can whip up this salad in less than 5 minutes.  Chevre, or goat cheese, is a French staple, it’s sold abundantly and cheaply in French supermarches (supermarkets).  This version is very light on its own, but can be made more […]

      Ingredients

      • 1 beet, sliced
      • 1 cup arugula
      • 2 tablespoons goat cheese

      Instructions

      1. Mix all ingredients together. Be French and enjoy how aesthetically pleasing all the colors look before you eat!
    • Caprese salad 

      Caprese Salad

      This is my go-to salad year round.  It is so easy to make and delicious.  Adding a full avocado creates an incredible combination of flavors.  To transform this into a quick packed lunch, mix salad with cooked pasta. If I don’t have fresh basil on hand I’ll substitute dried oregano or pesto and it’s still delicious […]

      Ingredients

      • Cherry tomatoes
      • Sliced fresh mozarella
      • Fresh basil
      • Olive oil, to taste
      • Salt, to taste
      • 1 Avocado (optional)

      Use all the ingredients in the proportions you like

        Instructions

        1. Combine all ingredients
      • Olives: Nibbling on a few olives before and during a meal can help fill you up.  Choose a delicious flavor, such as basil or almond, and enjoy, Spanish style!
      • Crudités with dip: French women love filling up on vegetables, making this a quintessential appetizer. Crudités are simply raw vegetables, served in slices or sticks.  This is a great light dip to serve them with

        Curried Parsnip Hummous

        Curry Parsnip Hummous This recipe is adapted from a French book series on simple cooking (Simplissime light: Le livre de cuisine light le + facile du monde (French Edition)).  I love traditional hummous, but this is an unusual combination of flavors.

        Ingredients

        • Parsnips (ideally steamed for 25 minutes, or boiled)
        • Cilantro, 1/2 bunch
        • 2 tablespoons Olive oil, to taste
        • 1 teaspoon Curry powder, to taste
        • 100 grams Fromage blanc (may substitute plain yogurt in the United States)

        Instructions

        1. Combine all ingredients in blender and blend, may add additional yogurt or olive oil to achieve desired consistency. Enjoy with fresh vegetable sticks, or baguette.
        2. Combine all ingredients in blender and blend, may add additional yogurt or olive oil to achieve desired consistency. Enjoy with fresh vegetable sticks, or baguette.
        .
      • Chicken, Leek, and Potato soup 

        Chicken, Leek, and Potato Soup

        I love soups, they can be part of a multi-course meal or made hearty enough to be a one-course meal.  To make this soup thicker, add homemade croutons!  This turns this soup into an entree that satisfies nearly all the French nutritional requirements, with a source of each protein, fat, vegetables, and carbohydrates.  Crouton recipe […]

        Ingredients

        • 1 teaspoon Vegetable oil (anything you have in the house: canola oil, olive oil, etc)
        • 2 Drumsticks
        • 4 Large potatoes, peeled
        • 1 Leek, slice the white part of the leek and add the leafy green pieces whole for flavor
        • 1 Onions, sliced
        • 1 dash Thyme
        • 2 Bayleaves

        Instructions

        1. Sautee onions in oil. Add potatoes and leeks. Add thyme and bayleaves, stir briefly. Add chicken and enough water to cover all ingredients. Bring to a boil, then simmer until potatoes are soft. Add salt to your liking.
        2. For homemade croutons use [ideally] old bread or baguette. Break into small pieces and sautee in butter or olive oil. I like to add herbes de provence and salt as well. Let sit for a few minutes to harden. Add to soup when serving.

      All day long:

      Stay hydrated! Water, bubbly water, tea, coffee – copy the French and “snack” on these throughout the day to stay full for longer in between meals.

      I would love to hear from you! Do you have any favorite meals for eating after the holidays or any festive occasions with heavy eating?!

      Parisian Tips for Surviving the Holiday Season

      The holiday season in Paris is filled with all the wonder and charm and delicious food as you would imagine. Foie gras in the stores, Buche (cake resembling logs of wood) in the bakeries, and marrons glaces (glazed chestnuts) on the streets. Do the French indulge themselves, or do they continue to follow ingrained laws of nutrition (see my post on the French food pyramid)?

      Inspirelle came out with a fantastic article on the Parisian guide to surviving the holidays from a nutritionist. She begins with presenting the existential question of whether life is fuller when we we let loose, Anglo-saxon style, and let ourselves drink, eat, and be merry, or when we retain our regimented and disciplined diet and are able to look fantastic (and fit into your clothes) throughout the holiday season. How did she read my internal mental struggle so perfectly?

      Regardless of which of your internal voices wins this battle, here are some helpful tips from the article:

      • Tweak your exercise regimen over the festive season based on the intensity of your social (and therefore gastronomic) schedule.
      • Strategize carefully at festive events: don’t fill up on appetizers or bread, eat slowly over large long meals so your overall intake is less, and sip on a glass of wine for hours.
      • Drink plenty of water throughout a holiday event.
      • Don’t go for that second helping!
      • On days when you don’t have social events, give your digestive system a little R&R by keep your eating light and healthy. Skipping an occasional meal is okay too.

      Hope this helps! A wonderful magical holiday season and happy new year to all!!

      The French Food Pyramid

      French food pyramid
      http://francesmiraflores.blogspot.com.es/2015/02/la-pyramide-alimentaire.html

      Since we arrived I’ve been putting my nutrition background* to use to mentally map out the “functioning local food pyramid”. A food pyramid is a nutritional construct to help people make smart food choices by offering them a pretty diagram of a geometric shape filled with images of food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts out a revised pyramid roughly every five years to reflect updates in the field of nutrition. In recent updates the pyramid was turned into a plate because somebody with a lot of time on their hands decided it was easier to understand a circle than a triangle; it can be found here. There’s even a feature for highlighting regional food differences by state, which I think is pretty cool. But I digress. The basic idea behind all of these concepts is that different foods should be eaten in different proportions throughout your day (i.e. fruit should be eaten more often and in larger quantities than cake).

      MyPlate Food plate USDA

      What pyramid (or plate) do people live by in France?

      Let’s start with what constitutes a French meal.  French meals are all about balance. Every meal should include the basic nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. One day on my way to work my toddler had a meltdown as we were leaving and in my distracted angst to get out of the house I forgot to bring my lunch and snacks. I ended up having a big morning snack from the hospital boulangerie, and then showed up to the daily lunch spot with a bag of potato chips and tea. My colleagues were horrified, “This cannot be your lunch?!” When I explained the situation they nodded compassionately and all handed me a piece of their daily fruit, “you must eat vitamins.” This leads to an important French dietary rule: if you’re going to eat, do it right, or not at all. If the French knew that my American colleagues and I regularly grabbed a bag of chips or a cookie in lieu of lunch on busy days, they would be disgusted, why bother to eat at all? I have a dietary skeleton in my closet…

      So now we have the basic components of French eating, but how do we combine them in the right proportions? Let’s get back to the pyramid. At the top are all those enchanting baked goods and decadent chocolate treats filling the windows of street vendors, the bellies of tourists, and dreams of ravenous pregnant women. For all my fellow sugar addicts out there these seem to unfortunately be preserved only for appropriate social events (e.g. family get-togethers, holidays, or in miniscule portions at dessert). When they are eaten, it is done ceremoniously, and always in small quantities. When I picked up my 16 month old from daycare before Christmas break, the caretakers informed me that she had had her “holiday chocolate”. We’ve never given her chocolate before. Did they ask permission to feed her chocolate? Nope. Any advance notice? Nope. You can’t mess with tradition, and little sweet treats on Christmas are a French baby’s right. After sweets, fatty meat delicacies such as foie gras and paté follow in the pyramid. These can be eaten on a weekly basis. On a day-to-day basis a protein such as your basic meat/poultry/fish/eggs should be eaten 1-2 times a day. Dairy products and grains are eaten in moderation at nearly every meal.

      Then we get to our bottom tier eat-as-you-please foods. In general French eat smaller portions than Americans. But this rule can be broken when it comes to fresh produce. I’ve seen a coworker pull out an entire head of lettuce, 2 large tomatoes, and a cucumber, cut it up with an entire block of fresh cheese, drizzle with vinaigrette, and eat it for lunch. Certain items are surprisingly eaten in “unlimited” quantities. These include coffee, tea, water, and nicotine, basically things that don’t have any calories in them, and possibly suppress the appetite. Indeed, people will take coffee and cigarette breaks for what adds up to hours each workday. The coffee is of course is not your delicious perfectly brewed café quality flavored latte, but rather a toxic black unsweetened liquid served in tiny cups. As for the nicotine habit, as a doctor I have to interject that smoking is bad. Cigarettes are definitely definitely bad for you and scientific evidence has clearly and unequivocally documented the many harmful and deadly consequences of addiction.

      There you have it. These are my personal observations on how French people eat. Actual official French recommendations do exist.  I’ve included the French dietary stairs below (Yep the French have decided to use even a different geometric shape than anyone else).  I also think its interesting that France includes exercise in their schematic, see my other post on exercise for more info.

      http://www.eufic.org/article/tk/expid/food-based-dietary-guidelines-in-europe/

       

      To summarize here are some French-inspired tips for daily eating:

      • Make sure every meal of the day includes protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins/minerals. The French believe that eating balanced meals help ward off cravings.
      • Build a regular structure into your meals. For example, start with an entrée of vegetables, grains, and a protein source, followed by a dessert of yogurt or cheese and fruit. This transforms your basic daily meal into a multicourse extravagant ritual, and fills you up for longer (both physically and psychologically).
      • Eat moderate portions of each nutrient group. If you find yourself still ravenous, include more vegetables and fruit in your meal.
      • Snack minimally. Enjoy calorie free beverages in between meals such as black coffee, tea, and water.
      • Reserve extremely sugary foods and fatty foods for social occasions.

       

      *I studied nutrition before entering the world of indentured medical servitude

       

      Citations:

      http://www.foodinaction.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/pyramide-A4-Fr.pdf

      http://dashofwellness.com/food-pyramids-around-world/french-food-pyramid/.