7 Weight-Loss Lessons Americans Should Borrow from the French

Aleisha Fetters
by Aleisha Fetters
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7 Weight-Loss Lessons Americans Should Borrow from the French

We’ve heard it for years: The French don’t get fat.

It’s difficult — if not altogether impossible — to find a country that loves food more than France. Still, the average French citizen is about half as likely to be overweight as the average American, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Rates of obesity in France are even slimmer. Call it the French paradox.

So, what are the French doing right? Here are seven habits you can put into practice for healthy weight loss and maintenance:


“People in Paris eat more at-home cooked meals than do people in New York,” says Clémence von Mueffling, the French-born founder of Beauty and Well Being. “Growing up in France, we learned recipes from our mothers,” says the daughter and granddaughter of French Vogue beauty editors. “We never relied on restaurants or processed foods.”

However, a 2016 study in BMJ Open reveals that ultraprocessed foods, including frozen meals and soda, make up 58% of the calories and 90% of the added sugar that the average American consumes per day. And people who frequently cook consume fewer calories per meal than those who eat out, per research from Johns Hopkins University.


French cuisine is about more than wine, cheese and baguettes. According to 2015 research published in Appetite, the French eat more fruits and vegetables than Americans do, and French family dinners place a greater emphasis on produce consumption, too.

Produce is so important to the French that the country’s version of MyPlate is a staircase with fruits and vegetables (“fruits and légumes,” in French) second only to water.

french dietary guidelines

Meanwhile, national trends show that the French are further increasing their fruit and veggie intake, according to a recent report from the European organization LiveWell for LIFE. Try doing the same. In one 2015 Harvard University study, men and women who ate the most fiber-filled fruits and vegetables with lower glycemic loads maintained significantly healthier weights over the course of 24 years.


The French aren’t big on supersizing their meals, instead opting for lighter meals with smaller portions, says David Benchetrit, M.D., director of the Clinique du Poids weight-loss clinic in Paris. In fact, when University of Pennsylvania researchers examined restaurant meals in both Philly and Paris, they found that U.S. meals were, on average, 25% larger than the Parisian versions. Yikes.

A 2015 review of 72 randomized controlled trials concluded that portion size dictates about 15% of our daily caloric intake, with greater portions sizes leading to excess food intake and weight gain. People tend to eat the same number of servings, no matter how big they are, Benchetrit says.



Eating smaller portion sizes doesn’t mean that you have to cut back on how much you enjoy your foods. Nine out of 10 French people say that they greatly enjoy eating, while only 39% of Americans do, according to the book “The French Twist: Twelve Secrets of Decadent Dining and Natural Weight Management” and the Pew Research Center. “Eating food and pleasure are two things that go together for the French,” von Mueffling says.

The French actually sit down to eat their meals. “Sitting down and sharing meals with others is something that Parisians really like to do,” she says. People leave work for lunch, drink their coffees in cafes and rarely — if ever — eat on the go. Good thing. Research in the Journal of Health Psychology shows that eating while walking inhibits the brain’s ability to gauge food intake, thereby leading to overeating later on.


The French aren’t overly concerned with “working out,” but they instead focus on “activity,” whether it’s in a gym or not. They perform physical activities they are passionate about and don’t get hung up on what the best new exercise is, von Mueffling says.

When it comes to your health, the best exercise is the one that you enjoy doing, according to self-determination theory, the leading theory of motivation. Research consistently shows that intrinsic motivation, or doing something simply for the joy of doing it, is more effective than extrinsic factors.


According to LiveWell for LIFE, the average French citizen drinks more than one glass of alcohol per week but fewer than two to three glasses per day. That may be the sweet spot when it comes to both weight loss and health. In one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, women who drank a light to moderate amount of alcohol per week gained less weight and had a lower risk of becoming overweight during a 12.9-year follow-up compared with people who didn’t drink alcohol. Meanwhile, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health maintains that moderate drinking seems to be beneficial for the heart and circulatory system and likely protective against Type 2 diabetes.

Although ethanol (alcohol) in itself appears to have some health benefit, much of the weight- and health-improving benefits of alcohol are linked to red wine, for which the French are famous. For instance, in a 2015 International Journal of Obesity animal study, resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, was found to increase metabolic rate and convert calorie-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. Just follow the French’s lead and don’t overdo it: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.


The traditional French daily routine contains three main meals plus one afternoon snack, according to LiveWell for LIFE. The average American skips breakfast, eats a couple of huge meals per day and often goes for hours between eating. And while your total daily caloric intake is the main factor when it comes to weight loss, PLOS ONE research suggests that eating small, frequent meals is beneficial for muscle mass, which often takes a nosedive during weight loss and is critical to maintaining a healthy metabolic rate.

What’s more, eating small, regular meals as opposed to large, infrequent ones can help to prevent blood sugar spikes and dips that are linked with fat storage and excess caloric consumption.

About the Author

Aleisha Fetters
Aleisha Fetters

Aleisha is a health and fitness writer, contributing to online and print publications including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, TIME, USNews.com, MensFitness.com and Shape.com. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she concentrated on health and science reporting. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA. You can read more from Aleisha at kaleishafetters.com, or follow her on Twitter @kafetters.


18 responses to “7 Weight-Loss Lessons Americans Should Borrow from the French”

  1. Avatar Karen Lynn says:

    #7 is patently false. The French look down on snacking — snack food ads on TV carry mandatory warnings that eating between meals is bad for your health. The afternoon snack is just for children. If you’re in a French city at 4pm, don’t expect to be able to get a meal. They have very strict meal times.
    Americans, on the contrary, are constantly stuffing our faces. We skip breakfast— as long as you’re not counting the venti vanilla latte, nonfat please. And snacking is so ubiquitous most people don’t know what it means to eat when you’re hungry.
    Given the new evidence of insulin’s role in obesity, this is very dangerous misinformation to be putting out to people who are trying to lose weight.

    • Agreed! We do not learn that it’s OK to be hungry for a while and we use food to comfort and reward ourselves. You never see French babies in strollers, cafes, or on the bus snacking on baggies of Le Cheerios.

    • Avatar Scott says:

      And also on the contrary to number seven, the tradition in France is to have a very big meal for lunch with breakfast being a small, lighter affair with lunch being the ‘main event’. And dinner being “an afterthought” and usually something small. So this thought the French don’t have big meals is false. If America is like the UK (and I’m confident it is in terms of diet habits) it is snacking that is the problem. I remember reading from a dietician that the main reason behind obesity rates is that people in general eat more regularly than they ever have.

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    • Avatar Chris says:

      Great post! Couldn’t agree more.

  2. Avatar Brig Oulette says:

    And our step count is not limited to walking to and from our car. Whenever I travel to Paris, I eat a lot but I lose weight because I walk so much.

  3. Avatar Bill Massey says:

    I’ve said for years that Americans can learn a lot from the French. We should be listening to them instead of laughing at them. Viva la France.

  4. Avatar BuckeyeBeth7 says:

    Ok so they’ve posted this one again. I guess they repost articles every year? Anyways, I glad for it since I’ve never seen this article before.
    So my question is, is all red wine the same as far as antioxidants and health benefits go? Is the cheap fruity stuff that I like just as good as the more traditional red wines? Are there any links to studies about this? Anyone have any experience in this?

  5. Avatar Lydia says:

    It’s all very well saying don’t eat on the go, however a lot of people in France get a one hour lunch break, sometimes more, and will often get subsidised lunch vouchers from their employer enabling them to choose a quality cooked meal. I get a 30 minute unpaid break in the UK and I understand the work culture is even more punishing in the US.

    I think the key thing is portion sizes – I’m not a big eater by UK standards but when I lived in France I’d take bigger portions than most men! French people just eat less.

  6. Avatar Mamba says:

    People, people, take the good parts that can work for you. There is no one-size-fits-all. And French bashing? That’s so yesterday … wait, you’re right, it’s back. Nevertheless, for myself I have many healthy, personal, small daily goals, the last of which is … “Do most of them, most of the time.” You gotta yield some battles if you’re gonna win the war. We can learn from the French, and each other, we just aren’t always open to it.

  7. Avatar Stephanie Schaffer says:

    Western Europeans in general are much thinner than Americans. When I travel in Europe the only grotesquely obese people I ever see are American tourists, and then I come home and it seems one in every four Americans is 300+ pounds. It’s really disgusting. But, that being said, when I go to a very big city in the US, people there are also thinner than Americans you see in smaller cities. You still see land whales but they’re much less common. I think there are several reasons for all of this. People who live in dense cities walk a lot. I just had a week long trip to Chicago in which I practically ate my way through the city, but I walked 5-10 miles every day with sightseeing, so my calories were pretty even. In the US we’re very spread out across a lot of land area, so even though we have huge cities like Paris and London, our people aren’t as concentrated in them. Many Americans live in small cities or suburbs and drive everywhere with easy parking, so the walking just doesn’t happen.

    Europe also has universal healthcare (cue angry hisses of nonsense), making obesity a public health interest for your doctors, your neighbors, and even your government. In the US there’s no centralized system promoting health in the general populace at large, it’s mostly just a shaming campaign by the media, and nothing complements shame better than a bowl of brownies a la mode. Physical health always seems to fall to the doctors to promote, but they’re easily ignored and avoided, as one of my 450 pound friends has proven well. We also have zero public interest in mental health and our mental health infrastructure is sparse/inaccessible for many people. Depression and anxiety are two very common problems that are often treated with food. Americans shame and look down on each other for even seeking help with mental health problems, and seeking healthcare in general is expensive and “a sign of weakness”. Our approach to health in this country is seriously messed up, and the results are obvious. Access is foiled by our messed up way of funding healthcare, giving assistance to the poor is somehow “selfish entitlement”, we should apparently only see doctors if we’re dying, body image concerns are fueled entirely by vanity campaigns, healthy food is more expensive than heavily subsidized fast food, your average American is stressed out with zero sleep working two+ jobs just to afford rent… these results aren’t even slightly surprising.

    • Avatar Guest says:

      I still struggle with anxiety and depression as an adult because of how people treat mental illness. I’m still trying not to whisper that I have them, but someone with cancer doesn’t whisper about that. Physical diseases are far more accepted than mental ones. I’m not ashamed to have anxiety or depression (I’ve had them too long to still be irked), but it’s like I’m offending other people if I say I struggle. The looks of disdain and/or pity are really too much.

      It’s so unfortunate for teenagers and younger kids who have these problems. They’re going to grow up thinking that they’re less than because of these mental issues, but physical issues like ALS get so much support.

      If any stigma needs to end quickly, it’s the one against mental health issues. Because honestly, that’s where my overweight problem started.

    • Avatar Melissa Sheklian says:

      so true, there are deeper, systematic reasons why Europeans are on average thinner than Americans, its not just how we eat

  8. Avatar Jennifer White Baillie says:

    Can you post the French Myplate in English? I would love to set up those guidelines in My Fitness Pal.

    • Avatar Erin S says:

      Based on my limited knowledge of French, it says something along the lines of:

      Title: Eat well, exercise to protect your health

      Bottom step: eat meat, eggs or fish 1 or 2 times a day
      Next step: eat dairy products 3 times a day
      Middle step: Exercise for 30 minutes a day
      Next step: Eat starchy foods at meal times, according to your hunger
      Next step: Eat fruits and vegetables 5 times a day
      Top step: Drink water when you want

      In the magnifying glass on the side: Limit the consumption of sugar, fats and salt

      Real French-speakers, feel free to correct me

  9. Avatar Jennifer White Baillie says:

    I eat 6-7 times a day. I log everything and I have lost 35 pounds in 9 months. I now have 18% fat. I am never hungry so I don’t get angry. It works for me. I have a friend who is doing the High Fat Low Carb thing and she does not eat anything until after 3 PM, and that is working for her. So figure out how your livestyle works and choose what works for you.

  10. Interesting information.

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