Fact vs. Fiction starting with the most important meal of the day
A lot gets said in a doctor’s office.
And if you’re anything like me, you’re never quite sure what qualifies as TMI. Shouldn’t this emergency room nurse know about me waxing my legs? Why wouldn’t I tell my dermatologist about what kind of bra I wear? My therapist is fine knowing how many times I get up and go to the bathroom at night...right?
But sometimes the oversharing happens the other way around. Take, for instance, the last time I went in to get a COVID test. While making small talk with the person swizzling a Q-Tip up my nose, it was revealed that I have spent a good portion of my life living in France (“it was revealed” = I talk about living in France all the time).
“My daughter spent a year abroad studying in France and gained twenty pounds,” the healthcare worker immediately responded. “When you eat croissants every morning for breakfast and an entire baguette every day, that’ll do it. They can eat it, but we Americans can’t.”
There were two things to be thankful for in that moment: 1) that my COVID test would come back negative, and 2) that there was no time to sit and chat over what had just been said. Otherwise, I would have likely unpacked the croissant-and-baguette myth for my caretaker over the next hour.
Newsflash: if a French person ate croissants for breakfast every morning and an entire baguette alongside their meals every day, they too would gain weight. As amazing as an all-carb diet sounds, very few of our European friends actually put it into practice. And those that do will likely see similar results as their American counterparts.
But what about the French paradox, you say?
The French Paradox, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is this: those living on the Hexagon have been called some of the healthiest people on the planet because of their low coronary heart death rates. The paradox is that they have such healthy hearts despite the fact that they eat loads of bread, cheese, and wine (and, for many years, were considered heavy smokers). This significant piece of information (from epidemiologists from the 1980s, i.e. a medical finding from forty years ago) has led to one of the biggest myths that so many Americans like myself believed to be the gospel truth: The French are healthier than us.
Obviously, there’s a lot to say here. Because low rates of heart disease is nothing to shrug off. But neither should these low rates be the only statistic looked at… especially now, when France is making headlines for being home to so many people who refuse to take the COVID vaccination.
Let’s save that discussion for another day. And let’s focus on something basic. Very few French people eat croissants for breakfast every morning. Every week is a different story… most of my French family and friends find Saturday or Sunday morning the perfect moment to indulge in a buttery croissant (or decadent pain au chocolat, or warm chausson aux pommes, or delicate pain aux raisins). But the pleasure would be ruined by consuming viennoiserie every single day.
So what do French people eat for breakfast generally?
Bread. Ah, oui. Lots of bread. But usually in the form of a good old fashioned baguette that contains nothing more than flour and water. Is that bread generally slathered in butter and jam? You better believe it. But when the French diet (and for all their rhetoric on not dieting and just eating everything in moderation, take one step into a French pharmacy and have a look at all the weight-loss products for perspective), they cut back on the butter as much as possible.
Cereal, yogurt, fruit, juice, coffee, and tea are also staples. And more and more French city-dwellers fit an American-style brunch into their repertoires now and again.
Are there some French people who can eat a box of cookies for breakfast, or down an espresso and smoke a cigarette and be fine? Sure. But in no way are those habits celebrated as healthy or sustainable.
You know where we stand at The French Collective. We are totally down to party with all things French and celebrate the various cultural aspects that make each Francophone country unique. But we’re also here to demystify some of the grandiose legends Americans (and others!) tend to project onto French culture. We believe that, like health, francophilia should be holistic and take all the facts into account.
Translation? Go ahead and applaud a country that probably does get away with eating more pastries than us and still maintains good cardiovascular health. Applaud the French people who save pastries for super special occasions. Applaud those who eat a pain au chocolat every day. Most of all, applaud others - and hopefully yourselves ! - who understand the happiness and mental health benefits that come from both indulging and moderation.
But first, go eat some breakfast.