The French Food Pyramid
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).
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.
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