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March 27, 2008
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The Joy of Food: What We Can Learn From French Women

Why are American women on South Beach with Dr.Atkins counting carbs in The Zone while their French sisters are living it up with wine, four course meals and fine chocolate? In her best-selling diet book 'French Women Don't Get Fat' Mireille Guiliano hints at the spiritual roots of America's eating woes.

French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano

 

Go ahead and hate me. I'm one of those women who can eat whatever she wants and never gain weight. Favorable genes? Maybe. But Mireille Guiliano's recent best-seller, French Women Don't Get Fat, gave me another clue as to why this may be—somewhere along the line it seems I've acquired some serious French attitude towards food.

In her book, Guiliano claims that French women—feasting on their wine and cheese and pain de levaindon't get fat because they approach eating in a very different way than their American counterparts. She says French women think and talk enthusiastically about the good things they eat while American women obsess about the bad things; that French women balance and moderate while American women over-eat or starve; that French women eat for pleasure and Americans eat with guilt. Guiliano bases all this on her observations and experiences as a French woman who resides in the United States.

Puritanism is alive and well here in the U.S. and we experience it in the extremes—prudishness or perversion; two sides of the same coin.
As a CEO of Veuve-Clicquot, a French-owned champagne company, Guilano has happily lived most of her adult life in New York City, married to an American. But her first trip here as a high school exchange student landed her 20 pounds of extra weight and some rather unfortunate eating habits. Back in France, her family physician, "Dr. Miracle," straightened her out in just a few months by helping her to recast her mind and adjust her food habitsá la French style. She shares these secrets in her book.

The approach she extols is threefold: Write down what, when and where you eat for three weeks. Then, look for offending habits and slowly make changes to them. After a few months—once you've lost half your desired weight goalfind an equilibrium and stay there by using French techniques.

I know that's all a little vague—you'll have to read the book to find out exactly how the French do this. There are plenty of practical tips and recipes in there, but eating like a French woman is more about mental attitude than anything else. Guiliano believes if we learn to eat for pleasure while tempering it with little tricks, we'll eat our way to a healthier, happier life.

While I don't agree with every piece of dietary advice in the book, I can't say Guiliano is wrong about American femmes and their food attitudes. Most women I know have food and weight issues—ranging from eating disorders to body image obsessions to poor eating habits. And just because I'm not overweight doesn't mean I've escaped all the attitudes that underlie the American approach to food and health—eating on the run, too much take-out, expensive gym membershipsI could go on.

So just how did American women end up on South Beach with Dr. Atkins counting carbs in The Zone while their French sisters are living it up with wine, four course meals and fine chocolate?

A Catholic worldview sees the natural and created world as sacramental, revealing God’s beauty, goodness and truth to our senses.
Blame it, at least in part, on our culture. There's a lot about America that none of us would trade but there are definite cultural influences that conspire to make us guiltily obese. And if that sounds harsh, consider the fact that almost 65 per cent of American adults are now overweight, including 30 per cent who are categorically obese. Something's wrong somewhere.

One obvious culprit is our fast food society. If you've read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation or watched Morgan Spurlock's documentary film, Super Size Me, you may already be sworn off McDonalds and Wendy's for the rest of your life. It's not just that chemically-constructed food is altering our taste buds and creating addictions; we no longer value the role of food in our lives. We don't care how it got to our tables. We don't know what's in it. We gulp it down without thinking. Eating is something we do quickly and absent-mindedly, in between (or at the same time as) the more important things. We have lost the rituals and traditions that for centuries have given meaning to eating, in order to accommodate our lifestyle of busyness and individualism.

I remember visiting my paternal grandmother's home as a girl. No matter how few people were present for dinner, the white ironed linens came out, full silverware, and a centerpiece on the table. There was conversation, proper manners, and home-cooked foodeven if it was simple. Dinner was treated as an important event. Come to think of it, Grandma is French. But even my own Celtic mother, with ten children buzzing about her table, made sure we all sat down together, chewed our food, and ate quality ingredientsoften from our own animals and gardens.

But that was then. Now, when my husband and I come home to our downtown row house from work at 7:30 p.m., we don't exactly feel like cooking up a big dinner. So, too often the local Thai restaurant gets called and the television gets turned on, and the dining room table stays adorned with magazines, books, bills and receipts, rather than food and wine. The Thai food may be healthy but the habit isn't.

Despite this confession, I'm a big fan of Slow Food, an international movement based in Italy and spreading (slowly, of course) across the globe. It seeks to preserve local and regional food (and wine) culture and defends food and agricultural biodiversity around the world. Slow Food promotes appreciation for taste, health, sustainability, and culinary craft and tradition. Everything about Slow Food points to the real and natural way we're supposed to be eating and living. Whether we like it or not, Europeans seem to get this better than we do.

We have lost the rituals and traditions that for centuries have given meaning to eating, in order to accommodate our lifestyle of busyness and individualism.
Clearly, French women aren't spending all day in the kitchen donned in fashionable aprons cooking up five course meals for their lovers. They have busy lives and commitments as well. But Guilanos' book speaks to the psychological and emotional attitudes we bring to food. And the spiritual.
 
Puritanism is alive and well here in the U.S. and we experience it in the extremesprudishness or perversion; two sides of the same coin. While we're obsessed with perfect bodies, kinky sex and over-indulgence, we are, ironically, fat, bored, neurotic and over-stimulated. Our lives could be so much richer. Good food—with its rituals and traditionsis a fundamental part of a rewarding life.

Modern France isn't exactly a bastion of morality these days, but its Catholic roots have no doubt contributed to its approach to culinary pleasure. A friend of mine who spent last summer in southern France commented that she was much less neurotic about food while there, even though she felt she was constantly indulging herself. In actuality, she was simply spending more time at table with nice people over three square meals—including wine and dessert—of fresh, quality ingredients every day.

That may not sound very spiritual but it is. Catholicism takes seriously the incarnational principlenot simply that God became man, but that creation itself conveys God's love and presence. A Catholic worldview sees the natural and created world as sacramental, revealing God's beauty, goodness and truth to our senses. It is a key way we experience both our Creator and the wonder of being alive.

Our puritan side would have us afraid of sensual pleasure because it's so powerful and tempting. Indeed, as fallen, wounded creatures we must develop the virtues and values that keep us from being mastered by our senses. But that's different from avoiding or fearing pleasure. And it seems clear that the more you deny the proper integration of body, mind and spirit, the more you set yourself up for being mastered by that which you lack. There is a huge chasm between repression and integration.
 
The Church's liturgical year provides us with spiritual seasons and occasions, an ebb and flow pattern of fasting and feasting, celebration and solemnity, action and reflection.
Though she's often derided as the mother of all repression, the Church actually has a practical prescription that can help us to live with some balance. It's called the Liturgical Year. Patterned on the life of Christ, the Church's liturgical calendar takes us through his life, from birth to death and resurrection. Sprinkled throughout the year are days to celebrate and remember the events and people who've lived the Gospel through the ages.

The liturgical year provides us with spiritual seasons and occasions, an ebb and flow pattern of fasting and feasting, celebration and solemnity, action and reflection. Think about what Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas are all about. True liturgical living calls us to indulge and revel as well as sacrifice and temper—all the while, keeping us focused on the purpose of life.

Which brings me back to food and the American way of life. Perhaps we shouldn't simply be looking back, mourning our losses and feeling defensive at being compared to the French. While we can resurrect some of what's been lost, we need to develop new rituals; new ways of building healthy, holistic attitudes and practices around food that take into account the demands of our lives.

Changing food habits and attitudes takes time. What moves it along is greater awareness and dedication to the things that help us make it a priority. I'm thrilled, for example, to see an increase in local and sustainable community-based farm associations, a greater abundance and availability of organic foods, and attention being paid to healthier restaurant fare, wine clubs, and community-building culinary events in urban centers.

But there needs to be more. Better public education in nutritionnot funded by agribusinesses, pharmaceutical companies or medical doctors (who take not one required nutrition course in medical school); more farmers' markets and co-operatives; an increase in support and appreciation for local food enterprises and artisan food products; more flex-time for parents to have time for things like meal preparation; family and community celebrations around food and wine; practical arenas of support from the church and community so it's easier to live in tune with our needs.

We need to develop new rituals; new ways of building healthy, holistic attitudes and practices around food that take into account the demands of our lives.
Yes, that's asking a lot but it doesn't take much to get started. As individuals and as families we can get educated, visit our local farmers' markets, ask for better food choices in our kids' schools, support local farms and artisans and vineyards, demand changes at our supermarkets, gather around our tables to eat, and make "better quality, less volume" a motto.
  
I've become convinced that one of the most important aspects of cultural renewal is changing our approach to food—what we eat, where it comes from, how we incorporate it into our lives. Food is life. How we do it shows us the health of our society.

I've gone far outside the bounds of Guiliano's book, but her views and tips lead to deeper reflection, which is one reason it's worth a read. Although she focuses on the goal of desirable weightultimately this is a diet book—she is pointing to a new way of life. Guiliano challenges American women to consider changing their minds about the way we eat and live. And that is, after all, our prerogative, n'est pas?

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June 10, 2005

ZOE SAINT-PAUL writes from Baltimore, Maryland. She is a freelance writer and Life Coach for women. She is a Godspy Contributing Editor.

©2005, Zoë Saint-Paul. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
06.08.05   reginadoman says:
Zoe, thanks for the great article! That book and your article raises some important issues that women have with eating. I don't know why I'm not as troubled by food issues as most of my friends - I would tend to chalk it up to an Italian background. Although my mom is slightly overweight (she's actually on South Beach), she managed to never give us girls a complex about eating or staying thin, for which I'm very grateful.She also made sure that as a family, we always had home-cooked meals, and she kept us away from junk food and fast food - in moderation. Actually, she never really obsessed about keeping us away from it - she just didn't buy it or take us out to dinner very often. And our Thanksgiving dinners are still a day-long ritual in serial eating - first antipasto, then seafood, then dinner, then dessert and coffee - a celebration of eating and talking that goes on from noon until 7 PM. But usually on Thanksgiving, I end up eating far more raw vegetables than usual (cut and arranged beautifully by one of my aunts), and sampling choice pieces of some expensive item that an uncle has brought to share (dividing something 24 ways means that everyone gets a small taste and no one can binge). And there's a wider variety - everything from clams to fine chocolate to foreign fruit to unusual sauces - it's not uncommon for us to have lots of leftover turkey the next day, because by the time we get to the main course, everyone's only ready to take small bits of the standard American Thanksgiving dinner. It's all about the food and wine, but it's also about talking and enjoying each other and the food and wine. Our Fourth of July reunions with the Italian side of the family are the same. I remember going to college with girls whose families raised them "healthy" - and watching in some incredulity as those girls would binge on junk food and fast food in college the way others binged on alcohol or sex. I would eat Karmel Korn along with them but I wouldn't understand the attitude of sampling a forbidden pleasure that they were apparently experiencing.I suspect that a mother's (and father's) attitude has a lot to do with how women are raised. My mother put her emphasis on us girls being well-groomed, well-mannnered, and smart (as well as devoted to God), but I really don't remember her ever telling us to worry about staying thin. My dad backed this up by his devotion to my mom and their red-hot romance despite the fact that my mom wasn't a thin vixen in any sense of the word for most of my growing up. We all knew he thought she was beautiful, and I think that was a big reassurance for all of us girls.Now that my mom is older (and has survived a heart attack) I support her in her quest to lose weight, but I'm very grateful for the way she raised us.Just yesterday my husband and I took our family out for a picnic on the shores of Lake Michigan where we are vacationing. We sat in the woods by the beach and ate grapes, potato chips, cheddar cheese and roast beef sandwiches, and drank Gatorade as our kids enjoyed the view of the Lake from the towering wooded sand dunes. I remember thinking that this was one of those moments I would always remember - the towering pines, the heady breeze from the Lake, the taste of the good meat and cheese, and my family all around me. Not once did I think about the calories. That's how I think God meant for food to be used.

06.04.05   MJ Paul says:
Dear Zoe,Your article was excellent, and very interesting. I must read and think about it more to digest it all. I have never made the connection about one's psychological attitude about food and weight before. Yet, it is true. Having lived abroad for four years, I was aware that the psychology of "dining" in Europe in general was different from "eating" in the U.S.A., but I fell back into my old way of thinking about food when I returned home to the U.S. To make matters worse, I picked up some lazy habits in the 21 years since then. Not only was I more healthy in my eating patterns in Europe, I also exercised a LOT more by walking or bicycling almost everywhere. I know that the focus of your article was about comparing attitudes between French and U.S. women regard food, but there is another component that is different between the women from these two countries. Exercise. Except for a small segment of our population, most U.S. women don't get enough exercise relative to the volume of food that we eat. I'm a prime example on one who doesn't exercise enough. Although I don't eat large quantities of food at home, I always eat more when dining in a restaurant. As I grow older, this creates more of a problem, because I need less food. My goal now is to readjust my attitude about food: the kind, where it comes from, and how it is prepared. And, I have already started to work on the second component -- exercise. :-{Mary Jo

06.03.05   Godspy says:
Why are American women on South Beach with Dr.Atkins counting carbs in The Zone while their French sisters are living it up with wine, four course meals and fine chocolate? In her best-selling diet book 'French Women Don't Get Fat' Mireille Guiliano hints at the spiritual roots of America's eating woes.

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