By Maureen Callahan, M.S., R.D.
Updated: April 18, 2008

Multi-course meals of filet mignon, crème brûlee, and wedges of rich cheese don't sound like diet-friendly dinners. Yet, many French women manage to revel in this style of fine dining without adding unwanted pounds. French-born Mireille (Meer-ray) Guiliano, a busy New York City executive, wants to share their secrets, ones she had to painfully relearn. As a teenage exchange student to the United States in the late sixties, Guiliano scarfed down brownies, cookies, and American-style meals that packed an extra 20 pounds on her petite 5-foot-3-inch frame. It took a trip home and rediscovering her old French eating habits to help Guiliano shed that excess weight and keep it off for more than 30 years. The French food secrets she shares are mainly daily eating habits, ones she says French women learn early on and practice all their lives.

Because Mireille Guiliano has lived in the United States for many years, she definitely knows how eating habits differ between French and American cultures. And she writes about these differences in an entertaining and thoughtful way. Some critics suggest that cigarettes might be the real secret to why French women stay so thin, but as Guiliano points out, American Cancer Society statistics suggest that the number of female smokers in both countries is surprisingly similar. Regardless of this debate, it's obvious there is something to be learned from the French attitude toward food-one that focuses on pleasure and controlling weight through small changes in eating habits. While her book is technically not a diet, there's a lot to be learned from Guiliano's approach to savoring good food.

Basic principles:

Guiliano's plan is based solely on her own observations and beliefs. According to her, French women typically don't skip meals or replace them with prepackaged diet shakes. They don't count calories or slip into the Zone. Instead they cultivate a balanced relationship with food-what Guiliano calls a "French Zen." To adopt this attitude, Americans need to emphasize quality over quantity and learn to slow down so that they savor meals instead of eating on the run.

How the diet works:

In the first phase, dieters jot down everything they eat in a food journal for a few weeks to pinpoint where they are overindulging. (Problem areas usually show up within days.) In the next phase-which lasts about three months-dieters gradually adjust their eating habits. For example, they may temporarily give up certain foods and cut back on portions. After dropping the pounds, dieters work to keep their weight stable.

What you can eat:

Anything in moderation. French meals typically contain several courses, but the portions are small and the foods are high quality. Guiliano suggests searching out fruits and vegetables that are in season and packed with flavor. Enjoy a few ounces of baked salmon rather than half a pound. Discover that one small piece of high quality chocolate is much more satisfying than a stack of run-of-the-mill candy bars. In other words, it's all about checks and balances. Guiliano says French women allow for indulgences by cutting back somewhere else. So a dessert at lunch might mean a lighter meal at supper or an extra-long walk around the neighborhood in the evening.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?

Mostly the author offers herself as proof that the plan works. No scientific studies are cited—yet medical research seems to bear out her beliefs. Only about 7 percent of French people are obese, compared to 24 percent of Americans. And while it wasn't mentioned in the book, a University of Pennsylvania study comparing the eating habits of people in France and the United States finds that even though many French foods are high in fat, the French typically eat smaller portions and most likely end up consuming fewer calories by day's end than most Americans.

Is the diet healthy?

Probably. Technically it's not a diet but rather an assortment of strategies geared to help dieters eat moderate portions and maintain an active lifestyle. As behavior tips go, they're definitely good ones.

What do the experts say?

Psychologist Paul Rozin, Ph.D., who conducted the University of Pennsylvania study, finds Guiliano's book a fun read. If dieters take her advice, it will probably help them lose some weight—as most diet books will, she says. "I guess my biggest problem is that the author is asking dieters to behave like the French, but to do it in the United States." And that can be tough. The same environment that makes it easy to live the French lifestyle (daily farmer's markets, less access to snack foods, exorbitant gas prices that discourage unnecessary driving) isn't going to be found in the United States, except possibly in some urban areas. Dietitian Chris Rosenbloom, a professor of nutrition at Georgia State University, agrees. Still, she thinks Americans could learn a few things from the French when it comes to dining. "The French aren't obsessed with counting carbs, fat grams, or calories," she says. "To them, eating is about enjoying all kinds of foods in moderation." Rosenbloom also likes Guiliano's tip of balancing an indulgence by cutting back somewhere else. "We just don't have that kind of mentality in the United States," she says.

Who should consider the diet?

This book is meant for women who have 30 pounds or less to lose, not for those whose weight is so high that it's a health risk. Urban dieters who walk a lot and make frequent trips to the market will find it much easier to adopt a French lifestyle than folks in rural areas.

Bottom line:

This plan sure beats all those extreme diets that call for shunning certain food groups, slurping only soup, or planning meals around your blood type. It may be too open-ended for some dieters, but learning to enjoy rather than fear food is definitely a good place to start.
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