Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The French Paradox

The French Paradox:
Why The French Eat Fatty Food & Are Skinnier Than Us

It is official.  The French enjoy food more than Americans. And they are thinner with less health issues.  Awesome.

As it turns out, this phenomenon is so well documented,  even has a name - The French Paradox.

But what if it wasn't actually a paradox?  Maybe it all makes perfect sense.

Studies have shown that the French stop eating when they're full.  Americans stop eating when their plate is empty (Wansink,  2006).  Interestingly, the larger a person is, the more likely they were to rely on external cues to stop eating (e.g. portion size).

Frankly, this isn't too surprising.   We all understand that the plate sizes in the States are big, some of us have an inclination to eat everything on the plate, and subsequently, we gain weight.  But this begs a more interesting million dollar question:  If relying on external cues like plate size can cause weight gain, what is the answer to weight stablization?

Well, the answer is resoundingly NOT self-control, restraint, effort, pressuring yourself, and/or punishing yourself.  These methods also rely on external cues or rules that you set for yourself.  These types of eating guidelines are largely ineffective in practice too.  Consider how many times you've tried to restrain your eating, only to eat a ton.  You may even binge after trying to restrict.

I would go so far as to say that restricting food intake with any type of diet may actually be just as much a part of long-term weight gain as overeating.  For so many people, restricting food intake is simply just the first step in a sequence that eventually leads to unstoppable eating.

Take a moment to chew on that concept a bit: restricting is the opening act for a grande finale binge.  If this cycle repeats over time, the overall effect could actually be weight gain.  Shortening the message, restricting may = weight gain for some.

[Turns out there is this whole psychological component to dieting practically no one has been considering!  But I digress.]

Now, returning to the million dollar question.  The correct answer is this: the opposite of relying on external cues to stop eating is relying on internal cues of hunger and fullness.  In short, if you go by external cues like your plate size, you could be heavier over time.  Conversely, if you go by internal cues, your weight is likely to be more stable over time (e.g. Augustus-Hovarth & Tylka, 2011)

Interestingly, Rozin et al (1999) found that American's associated "chocolate cake" with guilt, while the French associated it with "celebration."  The French can actually enjoy cake and they're still thinner.

After all of that dieting, could it be that thinking more like a hedonist shrinks your waistline?  Tell me what you think with a comment below.

P.S. As usual, this post is only a sliver of my thoughts on the matter.  More generally, not only does one need to start paying attention to hunger/satiety cues, but also 1) decrease fear about weight gain, 2) try to curb the desperate desire to be thin, 3) stop mentally obsesses over calories, 4) curb efforts to compensate for calories, and 5) very importantly, being "thin" doesn't equal good health in the same way being "overweight" doesn't equal bad health.  But these issues are fodder for another post!  We'll get there.

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Augustus-Hovarth, C. & Tylka. T.  (2011). The Acceptance Model of Intuitive Eating: A Comparison of Women in emerging adulthood, early adulthood, and middle adulthood. The Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 110-125.

Rozin, P., Fischler, C., Imada, S., Sarubin, A., & Wrzesniewski, A. (1999). Attitudes to Food and the Role of Food in Life in the U.S.A., Japan., Flemish Belgium, and France: Possible Implications for the Diet-Health Debate.  Appetite, 1999, 33, 163-180.

Wansink,  B. (2006).  Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.  New York: Bantam Books.

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