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Why Aren't the French Fat? What We Can Learn About Weight Loss From A Cream-Loving Culture-AND From Winnie the Pooh

GOOD NEWS: Common-sense weight management does not include counting calories, forbidding carbohydrates or fats, or eliminating chocolate from our diets! Dr. Clower shares a theory on diet and weight.

Rabbit was lost. He had that terrible, sinking feeling. No doubt about it, every time he marched Piglet and Pooh into the mists of the Hundred-Acre Wood, they ended up facing the same sand pit. He had tried to be clever and strand Tigger in the woods to curtail his socially inappropriate bouncing. But it was Rabbit and his less zealous conspirators who had become confused and lost.

Pooh, however, was led to his larder by a force of gravitation centered about his belly and, in a fit of crystal clear Poohian logic, made the winning suggestion. “Since we walk away from the sand pit looking for home … and we always end up back at this sand pit … perhaps when we get out of sight of this sand pit … well, we should try to find it again. Maybe then we should reach home.” Rabbit, frustrated by his inability to complete his dubious plan to discipline Tigger, was in no mood for Pooh’s fluff-brained ideas. In the end, though, Rabbit remained lost, bouncily rescued by Tigger. Pooh found home.

Americans, however hard they work at it, keep searching for a way out of their weight problems, and keep ending up back at the same sand pit. But what if one were to take Pooh at his word? What if one were to do what the American system says would make you good and fat, walk away from what we “know” about weight problems, and then try to find it again?

What would it take to design a diet that would be sure to get you back to the sand pit and make you totally fat? First, you would break the cardinal strictures of both schools of dietetic thought: don’t avoid fats or carbohydrates. For example, you might give yourself full-fat cheeses, whole milk, half-and-half in your coffee, and normal butter (not something with “food product” in the title). Have some empty alcohol calories while you are at it by drinking a touch of wine with your meal. Besides, it goes well with the fresh breads you’ll eat for lunch and dinner. Don’t be obsessed with exercise; just get out of the house once in a while. Eat late at night and don’t have a gigantic breakfast. Maybe take an afternoon nap.

There. The perfect prescription. You’ll be big as a house in no time. This, though, as you’ve probably guessed, is exactly the French diet. The country with an 8% obesity rate! I set up this scenario facetiously, but laughed out loud when I later read the chapter entitled, “The Worst Diet in the World,” in a very popular recent diet book. As erudite and confident as Rabbit, the author states that poor health and obesity result from a diet full of “breads and pastries … cheese, butter, cream, and other whole-milk products … [that] get more butterfat into people’s systems for good atherogenic measure.”

These predictions of gloom and doom, though, fall flat in front of one simple observation: ordinary French people. They’re not fat, heart diseased, and their average life span is greater than ours. One clever theory, felled by the plain upright facts.

What the French do right in regard to food and weight doesn’t have as much to do with the percent of this or that in their daily intake content of the food web pyramid scheme blabiddy blah, as it does with common sense cultural habits. And you don’t have to be afraid of your food or neurotic about calories either. Of course, no one’s suggesting you spend all afternoon in a muumuu shoving down cream-filled, fudge-covered Ding Dongs. The prescription of what you eat must be balanced with the equally important issue of when and how you eat. Diet isn’t so simplistic that you can just sum up the molecular composition of your food. It involves the larger sense of the word - snacking habits, eating routines, and social rules around the table. These suggestions introduce function as well as form, the style of eating as well as the nature of the food.

With this in mind, now we can address the main question. How can the French violate our established dietary rules by eating fats and carbohydrates, without becoming totally fat and unhealthy? The answer, though, is disarmingly simple and do-able. It doesn’t emerge from some elegant high-tech Eureka! revelation or miracle cure that melts your fat away with crystals or magnets. It stems from basic rules we’ve probably all heard growing up. Here are some starters.

Take smaller bites. Don’t snack between meals. Finish what you have in your mouth before putting something else in there. Get outside and walk around. Take your time at the table and talk to the people you are eating with. Have some meats, some vegetables, some breads, some desserts - a little of many things is better than a lot of just one. These are simple rules. Very Pooh.

American nutritionists face weight issues like Rabbit: complex and confusing. The French face them more like Pooh: natural and intuitive. However, despite a thousand Rabbit-like theories, our approach has unfortunately failed to give us any less obesity. In fact, it hasn’t even slowed the yearly increases: we can’t seem to maintain our current levels of obesity! We try a new diet, circle around again, and find ourselves back at the same sand pit looking for the next hare-brained plan to get us out again.

I believe the solution is simpler than we think. Have you ever rummaged through the fridge for something you knew was there, but just couldn’t find? You look behind and under things, rifling through the wilting leftovers in the back, only to find it front row center the whole time - right in front of your nose! The same is true for our diet. After looking so hard for so long, it’s time to step back and reconsider what we think we know. First things first.

The Fat Fallacy calls for a clear-headed return to basics. Remember what we have traded in for the impressive complexities of American dietary theories. In two simple components, the French diet takes off weight without even trying. First, don’t fear a normal level of fat in your diet (I’ll talk about what a “normal” level is in more detail below). Second, adopt eating habits that foster lower weight and a greater appreciation of the food you do eat. In combination, this dietary approach leaves Rabbit’s hyper-complexity spinning somewhere out on its own, and takes common sense by the hand on the way to a healthy form for ourselves in the mists.

Excerpted with permission from Clower's book, The Fat Fallacy: Applying the French Diet to the AmericanLifestyle-a book that gives hope to lovers of cheese and chocolate, like your editor, who has lost ten pounds since meeting Dr. Clower. It’s also worth noting that this book is very cleanly written; I didn’t change so much as a comma to get it ready (though I did retitle the piece).

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