Saturday, November 10, 2007

What the French Eat

What the French Eat

On the Saone River in Lyon, France, a lively farmers' market sprawls along much of the left bank on most mornings of the week. The
rst time I came across it, I was astonished at the possibilities beyond our conventional American supermarkets. In this single stretch, vendors sell
fty varieties of mushrooms and more than twenty kinds of olives. The market offered dozens of just-baked breads, hundreds of fragrant cheeses, fresh poultry and game, along with countless herbs, greens, nuts, and legumes. Needless to say, there was not a box of macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles in sight, so I ended up buying fresh green beans, some baby red potatoes, and sliced pork for dinner.

Once I embraced fresh food as normal, I came to realize perhaps the biggest difference between the French diet and our own: They eat real foods, we eat food products. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the steady yearly increases in processed food product consumption reached $461 billion by 1993 and is still increasing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that the demand for these products is on the rise globally as well.

The problem? Almost all packaged products are laced with an Acme junior chemistry set of preservatives, dyes, thickeners, stabilizers,sweeteners, and acidulants, among other things. The ingredient lists for even the simplest foods, like Healthy Choice ice cream or Wonder Bread, neither of which should have more than
ve ingredients, consists of rows of unpronounceable microprint. I call these faux foods-and they're directly responsible for sabotaging our weight-loss efforts.

Yes, faux foods are cheaper, because food companies can stamp them out with a shelf life approaching that of plastic. Yes, they're attractive, because these same industries spend $33 billion per year to enroll your favorite basketball star and pop singer to endorse them. Yes, they're tasty, because the chemical sweeteners are synthesized to make it 150 times sweeter than sugar. But despite the advertising claims of added vitamins and minerals, nothing makes those products healthy, and they certainly aren't real foods.

Nevertheless, we eat them. Instead of eggs (cholesterol!) we eat egg substitute. Instead of butter (fat!) we eat margarine. Instead of bread (carbs!) we eat sorbitol-sweetened oxymoronic low-carb pasta. Instead of normal fruits and vegetables for nutrition, we chase junk food with supplement pills. Instead of natural oils (more fat!) our foods have gone through a chemical hydrogenation process.

In this section, I'll show you how a simple return to delicious, ordinary food is the solution for permanent weight loss. The French, not surprisingly, don't suffer our dreadful problems with weight and health-but they don't deprive themselves either. In fact, they're known for the most famously sumptuous diet on the planet and have three times less obesity, three times fewer heart attacks, and they live longer than us-men and women. Think about this: If they can get those results, so can you.

I hear what you're saying already. "I'm not a gourmet French chef. I don't have an outdoor market of wonderful fresh healthy foods in my front yard (and no Saone River either)!" Or maybe you're not sure how you'd ever go without the prepackaged stuff you're used to buying. But I promise that it's easier than you ever imagined it could be to transition from faux foods to real foods, even by shopping in your own local grocery store. Yes, there are a lot of products you'll have to pass up-but this doesn't mean you'll be depriving yourself of any favorite meals (including dessert) or the avors you love. To help you make the transition, we'll walk through every aisle together and show you how simple the switch really is.

rst, and this is the toughest part, you must overcome any thoughts that hold you back. After all, embracing high-calorie foods strikes our diet-centric thinking as just wrong. This is often the
rst step at my PATH curriculum for healthy weight loss. People invariably ask, "Did you say give up low-fat and fat-free products? Stop counting calories? Forget low-carb diets? Can I really control my weight and still eat delicious foods?"

They're all asking different versions of the same question: "Don't I have to suffer through a hell of deprivation before I'm redeemed with heavenly thin thighs?"

The answer, of course, is no!

Part One takes you on the
rst three steps toward perhaps the most important part of a lifestyle of better health and smaller pants, the simple difference between what and what not to eat. Don't eat faux-food chemicals. They must be replaced with real foods.

Just as any meaningful change starts at home, Step 1 takes you on an all-out pantry purge. In the process of cleaning out the kitchen, you'll learn the faux-food ingredients that harm your heart and pack on pounds.

Once the fake foods are gone, we're going shopping together in Step 2. We'll stroll the supermarket, aisle by aisle, to
nd the good amid the bad and the chemically modi
ed ugly.

Because much of the packaged food we're used to is packed with high-fructose corn syrup, an intense sweetener, Step 3 shows how your switch to real foods literally changes what kind of food your body asks for and curbs your sweet tooth for good. Just as your body's need for high food volume will drop over time, your craving for over-sugared foods will evaporate as well. You'll recognize, by taste, just how much sugar
lls all kinds of faux foods, and they won't even taste good to you anymore.

In the end, your taste buds will return to normal-and so will your weight. You'll slim down, feel better, and have more energy through the day, effortlessly. And all this starts simply by getting to know real foods again.

Step 1

Forget Faux Foods

A few weeks before I was scheduled to leave for France, my wife, Dottie, and I attended a neuroscience convention in Washington, D.C. One night, our new French boss-to-be was taking us to dinner to introduce us to his Lyon research team. All dressed up and ready for a lovely meal, we met them on the sidewalk, piled into a cab, and headed over to the restaurant.

As soon as we got in the car, Dottie and I both were immediately distracted by Judith, the team's neuroanatomist. This young French-Portuguese woman was a svelte, awless, Sophia Loren-type beauty. She spoke with ease and elegance, clearly aware of every nuance of her manner and movements. It was obvious that she was a woman who really took care of herself.

As soon as we reached the restaurant, I became curious to see what such a careful French beauty would eat. I made mental guesses-a sparse green salad with a dot of low-fat dressing, perhaps? A plain chicken breast, hold the potatoes?

I could see her struggling to
nd something on the menu and understood why only after we got to France, because normally she would order choices like foie gras, a rich duck breast with veggies, followed by a little dessert (a tart or creme brulee) and some cheese.

At one point, as we chatted and waited for our meals, Judith slowly leaned over the middle of the table to scrutinize the little round packets of nondairy creamer.

"What ees zat?" she asked me, pointedly, as if I were responsible.

"Ah," I responded. Easy question. "That's nondairy creamer."

She frowned. "Yes, but what ees zat?" she said, a bit more emphatically this time. She held one tiny container of the liquid up to the light, clearly disturbed. I started trying to regurgitate my organic chemistry background for a cogent answer when my new boss saved me from my stammer of obscure nomenclature. "It's arti
cial cream-read the ingredients," he told her. "Americans put it in their coffee."

"No," she breathed. "Een zer coffee?? Zats deesgusting!" Then she warily poked her
nger through the remainder of the plastic packets in the bowl, as though she might be bitten by some new lurking threat.

Seizing the moment, I informed her that arti
cial foods were quite normal here. Hadn't she ever heard of Sweet'n Low? Sugar-free Jell-O? After her near-death experience with the nondairy dairy product, we had her going with outrageous shock and dismay. She'd just never seen the fake foods that I-like all of us-had come to accept as perfectly normal.

Of course, at the time, I thought she was the crazy one. Only a few months later, the tables were turned and my family and I were the ones in culture shock. This time, it was the very lack of arti
cial foods and quickie prepackaged products around us that was so strange. In fact, we found ourselves forced to buy full-calorie, full-avor "real" foods simply because there was nothing else to choose from. Our meals always tasted wonderful, but I was sure we'd return from our two years abroad each at least twenty pounds heavier. It just didn't happen. Just a few months into our trip, it became clear that we were breaking every dietary rule in the book and losing weight anyway!

If there are secrets to the French love affair with the meal, or unspoken advice about what's keeping them thin and healthy, the
rst is their insistence on high-quality natural foods that come from the earth, not a chemical plant. This is so simple, so intuitively correct.

How to Recognize a Faux Food

Avoiding faux foods doesn't sound too hard, until you sift through the parade of products lining our store shelves. How do you know what's healthy and what's not? Take bread, for example. The French eat baguettes every day. But does that make plastic-wrapped spongy "white bread" that lasts for two weeks okay to eat? No! And that begs the question again, how do you know the difference between real bread and fake bread, between real food and faux food?

To sort this out, let's do a thought experiment. Say I took a photograph of a fresh baguette. Our modern technology allows you to see an image that looks exactly like bread. If someone asked you what it was, you could certainly identify it. But would you eat the picture? Of course not. You can see it's not food; it's a photograph.

What if I made a three-dimensional replica from a plastic polymer and painted it so well that it looked exactly like an authentic baguette? Our modern technology can make it look so real that you wouldn't even be able to tell it was fake until you put your hands on it. Would you eat that bread? Would you cut it into pieces, put it in your mouth, and swallow it? Of course not, because you can tell by touch that it's not food. It's a synthetic model.

What if, instead, food chemists made a bread model that simulated the texture of real bread? Our modern technology can replace the harder plastics with synthetic, partially hydrogenated oils.

What if they spritzed the model with odorants so it actually made your mouth water with the homey aroma of freshly baked bread straight from the oven? Our modern technology can produce edible chemicals that easily conjure the smell and taste of wonderful breads.

So the bread now looks like it's not fake, smells like it's not fake, tastes like it's not fake, and even feels like it's not fake. Are you going to eat this bread? Let me tell you, people eat synthetic products designed to appear as though they're not fake every single day!

Some popular diets will tell you it's okay to eat bread, others say to avoid it like the plague. But when it comes to our health, the problem is not with the carbohydrates-it's whether the bread we're eating is actually food or if its nutritional value has been replaced with arti
cial substitutes.

At one PATH curriculum seminar here in Pennsylvania, a man from the audience spoke to me about his father, who had worked as a food chemist for Heinz many years. He said his dad would come home with little bottles and have his kids try his concoctions. He remembered one bottle of gray gloop in particular. He was told to close his eyes and try it from a teaspoon.

"Ketchup," dismissed the boy. "That's just ketchup."

"Aha!" the father beamed. "But there's not one single tomato in there!"

His father had managed to simulate the taste and feel of tomato ketchup in a chemistry lab. A terri
c accomplishment of science, no doubt, but is it food? Of course not.

This is the most stunning, mind-bending fact of our modern technological world. We are allowed, coached, and even encouraged to eat things that are not food. Given this tendency, here are some starter rules to remember.

Check the ingredients-they must be natural. And the best foods are ones that don't require labels for you to know what they are!

How to Read Labels

The European Union has tried a couple of times to introduce FDA-style labels with our standard nutritional calculus of the food listed on the back. But they can't get it done because there's just no market for it. No one wants or needs it because they're not agonizing over the grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in their foods.

The French don't go to the store to buy grams of this or that. They go to buy food.

That said, here in America, you really should read the labels unless you're absolutely sure of the food source, because of the reasons we've mentioned-that so many normal-looking foods are actually fake. But when you do peruse that periodic table on the back of the box, don't sweat the amount of macromolecules (your healthy eating habits will limit your consumption of them for you!-see Part Two). Rather, look to see whether the ingredients are real; they should have grown from the earth, have had a mama and a daddy, or can be found in a standard biology text.

For example, bread made with our, salt, water, and yeast is good. That made with thirty-seven unpronounceable ingredients is not-and it makes no difference whatsoever how many carbs, fats, or proteins are in that product. Tons of lab bench chemicals are fat free, and tons more are carb free. But you shouldn't be eating any of them!

I hope you see the point. We've been coached to read labels for the wrong things. By being overly focused on the macromolecules, we've allowed ourselves to eat hydrogenated oils that are harming our hearts and high-fructose corn syrup that helps make us fat. When you read the labels for real foods, you avoid all that because there are no synthetic dyes in an apple or chemical sweeteners in a tomato.

Why Avoid Faux Food?

Never before in human history (until now) have we had to ask the question, What is food? Our biology took care of that for us, through our senses. But now, synthetics can fool our physiology into thinking something's okay to consume, when it's nothing but a cheap imitation, a faux food that undermines your weight and health.

Excerpted from

The French Don't Diet Plan
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