10 Secrets to Staying Slim in the City of Croissants & Champagne
I adore and do indulge in French cuisine, but I'm a Byron Bay girl at heart and the practices I adopted in that organic-green-smoothie paradise have stuck with me here in Paris. Thank Buddha.
Friends in Australia see my many photos of french cuisine on social media and ask me how I stay slim with all the gorgeous food here. I love to take photos of pretty food (because to me it's art), but that doesn't mean I'm eating it all!
I've learnt over the years (and, um, decades) what makes me feel best in my body and surprisingly, have also picked up from the French a few timeless attitudes towards eating.
The French traditionally follow a 4 x 4 style of eating:
- 8am : petit dej (breakfast) - traditionally a flaky croissant or pain au chocolat, and coffee.
- 12pm : dejeuner (lunch) - protein, vegetables and bread.
- 4pm : gouter (little tasty treat) - Nutella on bread if you're a little kid, or a flaky pastry if you're a big kid.
- 8pm : dîner - a smaller version of lunch.
I love this concept because it means you're never hungry and have enough fuel for your brain and body to last the day. My body needs to eat regularly like this. I can't cope with just three meals a day otherwise I'm raiding the Nutella jar or cheese-and-crackers by 4pm like a fat kid in fat camp.
Nothing I do is slavish or regimented; I eat how I want, but my taste buds and body are accustomed to and expect high quality nourishment. So croissants for brekky are a rarity.
I'm lucky to have grown up with a mother who gave her four kids delicious, varied and healthy meals (including homemade bread sandwiches for school every day) as well as having lived 20 years in Byron Bay, the high-class hippie capital of Australia, where I learnt a thing or two about organic, locally grown produce.
Having experienced childbirth and perimenopause and the fun weight fluctuations that come with all that, here's what I know to be true and works brilliantly for me at age 49, even though I'm surrounded by all the croissants and champagne in the world.
Weight loss and maintenance is always 80% what you put in your mouth, and only 20% exercise. It's not a myth, it's science, full stop. Ask Michelle Bridges if you don't believe me.
Sugar is the biggest cause of weight gain. Not just white table sugar, but anything else that turns quickly to sugar in your body, like high GI foods (white bread, white pasta), too much fruit/fruit juice and yep, alcohol. And it all accumulates around your middle. So I use stevia in my tea, alternatives to white sugar when baking (such as coconut sugar) and prefer to eat small quantities of high quality dark chocolate containing less sugar than milk chocolate.
I had a good crack at wine and champagne when I first moved to Paris a year and a half ago, remembering very quickly why I can't put away a bottle of wine twice a week like I used to in my 30's. My body can only cope with one or two glasses of wine a night, once or twice a week. Any more than that and I'll have a hangover the next morning.
Alcohol very quickly turns to sugar in the body (hello tummy spread) and worse, makes you feel like you're full and don't need to eat something, which would otherwise have given your body the nutrients it needed before you reached for that third glass of rosé wine.
High GI ("glycemic index") and gluten-loaded foods include :
- white potatoes
- white bread
- white pasta
- white rice
- white flour (like quiche, cake, biscuits, croissants)
These make me too full too quickly, so I eat very little of them. My body has become accustomed over the years to crave vegetables and protein. I get a distended tummy from those kind of foods, and understood why after reading "Wheat Belly" by Dr William Davis.
The solution is not "gluten-free" labelled products though, as they often depend on rice, corn and other starches as the base, which although don't contain gluten, significantly spike your blood sugar levels.
Sometimes I'll have gluten-free pasta or bread, but it's not often. I'm not precious about avoiding french pastries and breads, but I do genuinely prefer the taste and feeling in my body of seedy, wholegrain bread over a white baguette, an almond-meal cake over mud cake, and nutty, brown rice over starchy white rice any day.
Six days a week, in Parisian snow or 37 degrees stifling heat, I move my body for 30-60 minutes. It's an investment in my longevity and ongoing wellbeing and just another thing that's got to be done each day, like the dishes. Since I started this level of exercise around 10 years ago, I've been ill only once. My ability to stretch, balance, bend and carry weight means my posture is beautiful, I rarely suffer aches and pains and I have an inner resilience that comes from regular, external and internal pressure on my body.
Not being overly structured about it is key, though. I only move my body in ways I truly love, so it's never formal "exercise" (which makes the rebel in me resentful) but more about what makes my mind and body feel alive and happy. It's a kind of moving meditation.
Ways I love to move my body:
- yoga (vinyasa style)
- swimming (half a kilometre or more)
- running (5 kms)
- loads of walking (a given, in Paris; around 10km in a day)
- occasional cycling
Balancing something that strengthens and stretches (like yoga or walking home with heavy groceries) with something that gets my heart pumping (like running/swimming) builds strength, resilience, flexibility, stamina and poise.
Like, more than my 6'4" Frenchman, if I'm in the mood to. He is always astounded by how much I put away. We're both great cooks, though his meals normally veer towards quiche/pasta/white rice/cake territory and mine towards fruit/legumes/vegetables/fish (sometimes to his dismay, in particular the cauliflower "rice" he had a mouthful of before he realised it wasn't, in fact, rice).
My attitude towards eating is:
Food is medicine.
How I love to eat my medicine :
- Minimise dairy: I eat coconut cream instead of yogurt, drink almond mylk, rarely eat ice cream because I just don't love it, and moderate quantities of cheese.
- Four or five different types of vegetables in lunches and dinners, plus a piece of fruit each day and a handful of antioxidant-rich berries.
- No meat (for both taste and ethical reasons) and instead lots of seafood, legumes and tempeh.
- Organic as often as possible.
- Full fat versions of everything because they're less processed than 'low-cal' and 'low-fat' versions which are tasteless, anyway.
- Cooking is one of my favourite things in the world to do. So I make my own quinoa or oat porridge in winter and coconut-oil toasted muesli in summer.
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut, tempeh, miso soup and kombucha to aid digestion.
- Superfoods: maca powder, matcha, goji berries and LSA (ground linseeds, sunflower seeds & almonds).
- Spices: turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and garlic for longevity and cancer prevention plus herbs like herbes de Provence. We have small but super cute herb gardens growing on two terraces and I love to pick some fresh each day for salads.
- I wait until I'm hungry before I eat and stop when I'm satisfied. Sometimes I'll have a pig-out sesh if I'm in the mood, but the next morning my body won't feel like food until lunchtime, and then probably just vegetables - a sure sign I'm naturally detoxing!
- Although my Frenchman inhales his food like a vacuum cleaner, I prefer to eat slowly, appreciating the quality of each mouthful so that I feel satiated in my tummy as well as my senses.
- To cleanse my liver, I start my day with fresh lemon squeezed in warm water. The liver is our body's biggest fat burning organ and I want mine operating at full capacity.
- I drink a teaspoon of organic apple cider vinegar in a glass of water 15 minutes before most lunches to aid digestion.
- It's important to me to drink around two litres of water a day, it doesn't have to be filtered. I also love mineral water, especially San Pellegrino as the mineral content is higher than in other brands.
- I never drink coffee though I love the taste, simply because it makes me super agitated.
- I do love a cup of loose-leaf 'French Breakfast Tea' by Mariage Frerès each morning, because it is out-of-this-world delish and exquisitely fragrant. To be able to sleep at night, I'll drink South African 'rooibos' (red-bush) in the afternoons, because it's naturally decaffeinated.
- Green smoothies and vegetable juices occasionally for their power to cleanse and nourish.
My weakness is, bien sûr, champagne. And red wine in winter and rosé in summer. Sigh. It's tempting but dangerous territory for me to indulge in a glass or two at lunchtime with a friend, as I feel seedy all afternoon. I'll imbibe a couple of times a week alongside dinner, and very rarely drink cocktails or spirits.
As for pâtisseries and gateaux ... yes they are amazeballs in Paris and I'll eat them if I feel like it, but my body is not used to so much sugar, fat and unhealthy carbs.
I do love a few squares (or more) of high quality dark nutty chocolate after dinner. And if it's the right (or wrong) time of the month, I'll sometimes even eat half a box of petit ecolier biscuits, without guilt!
I used to be around 10kg over my ideal body weight through mindless consumption, then lost and kept it all off in the easiest and most sustainable way, thanks to Michelle Bridges. I learnt about calorie contents in food and how to count them to lose weight. But I know that counting calories is not the way to live happily once weight is stabilised, and neither is jumping on a scale all the time.
Mireille Guilliano says French women know when they've put on a little weight because they no longer feel bien dans la peau - "well within your skin" - and this is true. I stay in touch with my body by noticing how tight my jeans are becoming, how full I feel in my tummy or just how I look in the mirror. Then I make adjustments to what I'm consuming without relying on scales to dictate what I "should" weigh.
I do naturally stop eating after a big dinner the night before until I feel hungry again. And I do listen to what my body tells me it wants depending on the time of month (more rest, solitude and nourishment) or season (spicy vegetable soups and curries in winter v. salads and smoothies in summer).
Let's just say that regular lovemaking makes me feel happy in my body and connected with my frenchman ... wearing quality lingerie beneath my clothing makes me good in my skin ... the occasional puff on a little cigarillo or sip of my Frenchman's whisky after a meal makes me feel all warm and soft inside ... and I see no harm in indulging in a decadent dinner doused in french wine on the first night of an adventure in a new city. It is, after all, what I moved to France for!