Eating French bread and cheese for a week seemed like a great idea ... until it didn't.
- For seven days I followed the diet and lifestyle of the French.
- I avoided processed food, tried French recipes, exercised outside instead of at the gym, and tried to make mealtime a more social experience.
- I ended up not feeling well and fell back into my American habits.
It may not seem like it, but French and American culture is different in a lot of ways. French weddings, parenting styles, and even food service can look a lot different than those of Americans. Their diets are no exception.
Before this experiment I looked at differences between French and American diets and was confident following a typical French diet would be no problem at all. After all, there are no strict rules, and it would give me an excuse to eat more bread and cheese. What could go wrong?
For this week I would be incorporating the following diet and lifestyle changes:
- Smaller meals.
- Choosing fresh food over processed or fast food.
- Eliminating distractions while eating.
- Heading outside for walks instead of hitting the gym.
- Enjoying dessert.
Day 1: Grocery shopping was a challenge
In France, most foods are purchased at local markets rather than grocery stores. But since another stretch of winter hit my area, a farmer's market wasn't exactly an option for me. I settled for the next best thing and went to Sprouts Farmers Market, an organic grocery store in my area.
I bought produce, fresh-baked bread, seafood, and cheeses, trying to focus on all fresh ingredients. This in and of itself was difficult for me as someone who relies heavily on frozen vegetables. My schedule can be erratic, and I hate having to throw away produce when I can't eat it fast enough, so I opt for frozen instead. But this week I made a thorough plan for each meal of the week with the hope that nothing would be thrown away.
Since the French think of eggs as a lunch or dinner food, I decided to make (American) breakfast for dinner. It consisted of toast with cheese, eggs, and spinach. I also had yogurt with flax and chia seeds, since I eat them every day.
Day 2: I tried to break my desk-lunch habit
I started the day with a traditional French breakfast of bread and an assortment of spreads, including butter, jam, and Gournay cheese.
The French emphasize the value of savoring meals. That means avoiding distractions, taking your time, and making your meal more social. That was going to be a problem for me.
I usually eat lunch at my desk and continue to work. To really eat like a French person I would have to break that habit. I had another “breakfast” meal of eggs, toast, veggies, and yogurt, which I ate in the break room at work. Instead of sitting alone with my headphones, I sat with a coworker and had a great conversation. Talking took me twice as long to eat, but I guess that's the point.
For dinner, I made a version of the traditional French dish ratatouille. I toasted some French bread and butter as well, and it made for a delicious and filling meal. My husband and I, who usually eat dinner at the coffee table while watching TV, decided to stick with distraction-free meals and turned off the TV. Instead we talked about each other's day and shared our excitement about our upcoming vacation.
Day 3: I had a very American slipup
I stuck with the same breakfast for most of the week, because I read that the French don't vary their breakfast much.
I had an all-day meeting at work, so my boss had lunch ordered in. Fortunately, that meant that I would be having my meal while collaborating and brainstorming with my team. Unfortunately, they wanted to order from a gourmet hot-dog place, one of the most American meals I could have had. I didn't want to rain on their parade by suggesting something different, so I thought about another key element of the French diet — everything in moderation. Instead of thinking of it as a failure, I just vowed to get back on track at dinner.
I went with a hearty, French-approved meal of swordfish steaks, asparagus with onions and mushrooms, colorful sweet potatoes, and French bread.
Day 4: The desk lunch returned
Once again I was stuck at my desk for lunch, so I ordered a salad from Chopt. It was delicious, but I had about 30 minutes between meetings to scarf it down.
Dinner wasn't any better. My husband was working late, so I made myself some pasta to eat alone. I know I could have checked to see if a friend could join last minute, or I could have gone to a restaurant so I was at least surrounded by people. But after a long day, all I really wanted to do was go home. I ate alone and, yes, turned on the TV.
I realized that following the “French lifestyle” wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, because there are fundamental parts of my day that contradict it. Unless I had rearranged my work schedule and planned some get-togethers, there was no way to avoid what was happening this week.
Day 5: I felt out of it
I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I was really getting tired of bread. Despite being one of my favorite foods, followed closely by cheese, I normally eat it sparingly. It doesn't always agree with my digestive system, and this week was a reminder of that. By day five I was very ready to get back to my usual bread-less diet.
Something about this week had also thrown me off mentally. I felt drowsier than normal, which I could probably blame on the extra carbs, and I found myself hungry nonstop. I accidentally ate two lunches on this day. I was starving at 10 a.m. and had eggs, roasted potatoes, and fruit, then I was hungry again at about 1, and had a spinach salad, sauteed veggies, black beans, and mashed potatoes.
After work, I felt like I desperately needed to go to the gym, but since the French opt for outdoor exercise, I took to a nearby trail for a jog.
For dinner, I had sauteed shrimp, rice, asparagus, and sweet carrots, so at least I ended the day well.
Day 6: Am I even doing this right?
I know I'm a broken record at this point, but once again I ate bread, jam, butter, and Gournay cheese for breakfast.
One thing I noticed with the French diet is similar to the struggle I had when following the Mediterranean diet. There's not a lot of structure since it's more of an overall lifestyle than a diet, so it's hard to know if anything I did this week was truly how a French person would do it.
Day 7: I finished strong with baked goods
On my last day I treated myself in a very French way — with pastries. I stopped by a local French bakery and got some macarons and coffee.
This week I found out that the difficulty in an American following the French diet isn't just about what to eat, it's about how to eat it. Cutting out processed foods was easy enough. But eliminating working lunches and turning off the TV during dinner were fundamentally different than how my life normally plays out. And to be honest, I simply failed to incorporate them into my diet very well. Also, as it turns out, my body just doesn't like to eat bread and cheese all the time, even if my mind does.
It did remind me how nice it is to go for a casual walk outside, so I'll definitely keep that up as I head into summer. And every once in a while maybe I'll throw in a croissant for good measure.
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