Magic Eating: The French Way

In a previous post I discussed the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. Wansink is a  food researcher who explores why subtle factors in our environment can enchant us to eat more than we really need. 

As I read through his advice I noticed a parallel between Wansink’s eating recommendations and the dietary habits of the French.

For years the French have been singled out for their magical ability to eat cheese, drink wine and enjoy 4-course meals while maintaining a slender physique. What I’ve read of French eating habits leads me to believe that their food lifestyle has a large role to play in their thinness.

Below is a short list of tips for enchanting your food habits so that you can loose weight more easily. These tips are adapted from Wansink’s advice in Mindless Eating and author Jennifer L. Scott’s writings on the French lifestyle in her book Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I learned While Living in Paris.

  1. Avoid the Spell of Snacks 

As Jennifer L. Scott Observes in Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I learned While Living in Paris, the French do not snack. Instead, food is primarily eaten at the table during set mealtimes, or seated in a local cafe. Eating time for the French is free from the distractions that TV, books or magazines provide. It is a special time to connect with others and enjoy life’s pleasures. 

The French do not eat on the go, or drive their cars with a sandwich in hand. When it comes to food, the French focus.

According to Wansink’s Mindless Eating, distraction is a powerful reason that people overeat. “People who watch a lot of TV are more likely to be overweight than people who don’t,” he writes (102).  “Both children and adults tend to snack more when watching television, and they do so even if they are not physically hungry. [ … ] The more we focus on what we’re watching, the more we end up forgetting how much we’ve eaten.” (103)

Anti-Snacking Spell

If you make an effort to eat only while sitting at the dinner table, you may be able to curbing a snacking habit. Another trick would be to resolve to eat only at set mealtimes, and never on the go.

If you simply cannot do without snacking, that is fine. Switching to fruit and vegetable snacks rather than potato chips or cookies will cut down on your calories massively. Grapes and baby carrots can make great TV-watching snack.

Avoid the Spell of Sight 

According to Wansink, people are enchanted by the “See Food Trap,” (78). In other words, if people see food, they will eat it!

Let’s say, for example, that a candy dish full of Hershey’s kisses in within sight of your desk. You will eat a lot more of them during the day than if the bowl is out of sight, or requires a short walk to get to.  If the bowl is within arm’s reach, the chocolate kiss will be in your mouth before you even have time to question whether or not you really want one. 

Anti-Sight Spell

Arrange cabinets and refrigerators so that healthier foods are more visible than questionable ones.  Don’t leave cereal boxes or cookie jars out where you can see them.

Having a fruit bowl visible is actually an indicator of a lower weight, so fruits and vegetables are something you would want to see on a daily basis. An elegant bowl full of colorful fruit may inspire you to eat more healthily throughout the day. 

Enchant your Table Settings to cut down on Mindless Eating

According to .Jennifer L. Scott, the French make a big production out of their meals. They eat on elegant dishes and pay attention to the notes and flavors of the food before them. They also take longer to eat.

Since it takes a least 20 minutes for a feeling of fullness to reach the brain, eating slowly can give you more time to process the quality and quantity of the food before you. It’s hard to stop eating when you are full when you are rushed to clear your plate in under 20 minutes. Add to this time-crunch the host of distractions that face American’s while eating (working, reading, watching tv, driving) and you have a recipe for over-eating. 

According to Wansink, the French stop eating when they experience a feeling of fullness, while Americans stop eating once their plate has been cleared (53).

Wansink also recommends switching to smaller-size dishes in order to increase your feeling of satisfaction. If you fill up a small dish with food and eat slowly, chances are you will feel full by the time you get to the end of it. On the other hand, if you fill up a large plate with food and become distracted, you can easily eat twice the amount of calories without even realizing it. 

Composition of white wine, grapes, different cheeses and two strawberries

Jennifer L. Scott also encourages people to add elegance to their meal times. Beautiful dishes and cloth napkins may heighten your enjoyment of the meal and signal your body that now is the time to slow down and savor the food before you. 

Bewitch your Brain

A core belief in Wansink’s book is that diets don’t work. There is a ton of research to support this fact, but the basic understanding is this: if you deprive yourself of certain foods both your mind and body will fight against you. Eventually, you find yourself unable to hold on to the reigns of whatever eating plan you were on and begin to eat excess calories again. 

Anyone who has ever dieted knows exactly what I’m talking about. The diet that works great in the short term eventually becomes an uphill battle.

Wansink suggests not dieting, but rather, “re-engineering your food life so that you can eat what you want without guilt and without gaining weight. It’s about re-engineering your food life so that it is enjoyable and mindful.” (10)

The tips above are an example of food re-engineering. I also think that the Weight Watchers Freestyle Program does a good job of this. The new program aims to offer you as much variety and quantity of food as possible so that you don’t feel deprived. At the same time, it re-organizes your food choices so that you loose weight, slowly over time.

I started the program about 4 month’s ago and speak to a weight-loss coach by phone every other week. She is constantly reminding me that the new program is not a “diet.” In fact, a cornerstone of the new plan is that you shouldn’t never let yourself feel deprived. In the 4 months I’ve been on it I’ve lost 14 pounds, all while feeling satisfied and excited about food! 

The French do not deprive themselves of good cheese, good wine or good bread. Instead they focus on the quality of the food, the flavors and the pleasure of it.  A the same time, they structure their meals so that they aren’t eating all day, but rather at set meal times, at a table. 

There are many more factors that affect weight loss, of course, but a few magic tricks couldn’t hurt! Good luck on your journey! 

Have a magical day! 

Food Enchantment: Why We Eat The Way We Do

Can the arrangement of your dinner table, the types of plates you use, or the names you give to what you eat have a magical effect on your waistline?

In the book, Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, Ph.D, the author says yes: we often eat for reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. Our surroundings cast a spell on our subconscious mind, and influence our food choices. He writes:

“We overeat not because of hunger, but because of family and friends packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” ( 1)

In his book Wansink uses his background in marketing to explain the multitude of ways your environment can trigger you to eat more than you intend.

Though Wansink has recently been called to the carpet for fudging the data on some of his scientific studies, I found myself relating to many of the food traps he describes.

One such food trap is the “health halo.” Basically, if a person perceives a food to be healthy, they will eat more of it than they intend to. You might choose to eat a sandwich from Subway rather than a burger at McDonald’s, for example. Once you get to Subway, however, the idea that you are making a healthy choice might encourage you to add chips and a cookie to your order. Eventually, you will leave having eaten nearly as much or even more than you would have at a “less healthy” food-chain.

Another factor can be the type of music played in the background while you eat. Slow, calming music can cause you to linger at the table and eat more slowly, while fast, hi-energy music will encourage you to eat more quickly.

Wansink offers tips for avoiding the food traps that can cause you to overeat. He asserts that eating from a smaller dish will make you feel more full and keep you from taking in unnecessary calories. Drinking from a tall, slender glass will have the same effect of encouraging you to drink less.

He also asserts that having a fruit bowl on the table is a predictor of a lower weight, as those who have fruit bowls visible in their houses weigh less than people who don’t.

Many of Wansink’s tips coincide with reading I’ve done on the French Diet. For years, authors have explored why the French do not gain weight like American’s do, despite eating quite a lot of butter, bread and cheese. According to Wansink, the French are much better at paying attention to their body and can easily recognize when they are feeling full. I think there is more to it than that, and will discuss french eating habits in my next post:  Mindful Eating, The French Way.

Have a magical day!