Most Parisians, like the government official to the right, have a Body-Mass Index of between 18-20, which is on the thin (good) side of healthy. By contrast I have a BMI of 28, and while my friends think I'm thin I'm technically overweight, just on this side of obese.
As has been mentioned here before, nearly one-third of Americans today are obese, or morbidly so, which starts at a BMI of 30 and goes on from there to Oh My God.
While taking my daughter to college in Texas recently, we stopped at an Alabama breakfast joint, where we saw a guy in a torn muscle shirt walk in with his lady, thinking he was hot stuff. He must have weighed at least 330 pounds, on a frame less than six feet tall. And the lady? Wider, shorter. To her, he was hot stuff.
Point is, we don't notice how fat we are, surrounded as we are by other fat people. It's only when we come upon an entire civilization of thin folk, like those of Paris, that we notice. And we ask. Why are the Parisians so thin?
There are four basic reasons, which I hope to come to later this week (although we're on vacation in Alsace so don't hold your breath). Based on reading, interviews, and observation I have drawn these conclusions:
They Are Told To – For over 100 years the French government has been telling women that the way to healthy babies is to restrict their calories. No snacks. Meals taken together at specific times, with space for conversation and good wine to keep it going. Realistic portions, which to an American seem really unrealistic.
Fashion – Parisians care about how they look on the street. The uniform this year, male and female, includes form-fitting slacks or jeans, tight black jackets, and shawls. They don't go to Costco for this stuff. They prioritize clothes in their budgets, and look into shop windows to see styles change. Loose-fitting anything is out.
Walking – Paris may be the best town in the world for walking, and Parisians take advantage. Cobbled streets aren't for bikes, unless you have fattie tires or it's the last day of Le Tour. The land the city sits on is the best the country has for farming – flat, well-watered. The scenery is magnifique. And, believe it or not, it's real exercise – walk for an hour and you're going to burn at least 800 calories.
Portions – On the second day of the Open World Forum in Paris lunch came, as it had before, in a warm bamboo container. It was maybe 10 cm. around (less than four inches), maybe an inch deep. It contained a tiny bit of fish, some zucchini and tomato stewed, with fresh herbs. It was delicious. It also looked tiny. But it was a true portion. You don't really need more for lunch.
A snack for breakfast, another at lunch, and thought put into dinner. This is the Parisian way. Is there a better way for civilized people to live?
France has some of the best food in the world, some of the most advanced food producers, many of the better chefs and the best gourmets.
But most people in French cities have learned that a little tastes better than a lot, that how you eat matters more than how much, and that you don't have to diet if you don't gain the weight in the first place.
What would it take for Americans to learn these lessons?