One of the advantages in living abroad for a few months is that it gives you a new perspective on your home country. There are things about America I do miss while I’m here in Paris- I’d love a proper dryer in my apartment and a roll of aluminum foil that tears without shredding would be nice. But as a health professional, the one thing I don’t miss is a society who is in constant search of the perfect diet.
As I sit 3000 miles away, posts about the latest diet, The Whole 30, fills my Facebook stream daily. The plan, while it eliminates processed junk food, which is always a good idea, also puts the kibosh on any form of sugar, grains and legumes with scanty science behind the reasoning. I would agree that trying to make changes in small increments of time, thus the 30 days theme, is manageable for many people. So while this new “diet”( really it’s just an incarnation of everything else we’ve seen) may give immediate results, on day 31, I see those same people posting that they are racing out to indulge in a doughnut. And I’ve seen far too many people describing their time on the “diet” as torture. We can do better than this. The Whole 30 isn’t the first, and certainly will not be the last approach Americans will try to fight the battle of the bulge. Why make it such a hard fight? Why are we so tough on ourselves and why have we adopted this all or nothing approach to wellness?
The French have their food issues too. Weight problems have grown here in recent years, especially outside of Paris. But still, the unbalanced approach to eating is not as rampant as it is in the U.S. The French have practically made it an art to indulge in wine, chocolate, some pastry and delicious butter while eating daily meals filled with fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. Before visiting France for the first time many years ago, I used to “go on a diet” to rid my stubborn pounds. The “going on” something only caused me to then “go off” and I finally realized this light-switch mentality was doing me more harm than good. It was on European shores that I finally got off the merry-go-round of reaching for THE diet panacea and learned how to combine carefully crafted treats with a regular healthy food plan.
So if I were to coin the next big diet concept it would be called The Whole Balance Diet, but don’t let just me convince you of the virtues of food symmetry. I’ve asked the smartest minds in the food world, four registered dietitians who have a science-based approach to wellness to comment on a way to enjoy the foods I enjoy here in France in America without unnecessary fear.
“Believing it will cause weight gain, diabetes, or other chronic conditions, some people avoid any food made with refined sugar like the plague! While good intentioned, there isn’t any evidence that a small amount of sugar is harmful,” says Jessica Penner, RD. “The World Health Organization recommends individuals aim to keep their added sugar intake under 5% of total daily calories (roughly 6 tsp). So it’s still possible to enjoy cookies or birthday cake! To keep the portion size in check, use a small cookie scoop to make mini cookies and ask for a small piece when someone is serving up cake,” Penner explains.
Here in France, I’m lucky to have an array of really good chocolate that I have a few times a week. What I can find here is truly the best, but Christy Wilson, RD, a health and wellness coach at the University of Arizona, warns you may have to do a little detective work while finding the right chocolate in the U.S. “Although chocolate can be considered a healthy food, it is no substitute for medication and not every type of chocolate out there is, in fact, good for health. Chocolate’s main ingredient, cocoa, contains flavanols that have antioxidant effects. Flavonols have been shown to improve blood pressure and vascular function; a 2014 study published in Endocrine Abstracts indicated improvements in insulin sensitivity even in people who did not have diabetes.” Wilson goes on to say, “Unfortunately, most commercially prepared chocolates are highly processed and loaded with added sugar and oils, which negate any health benefits touted by mainstream media. Flavanols are most prevalent in chocolate with a 70% or higher percentage of cocoa, making it taste more bitter than sweet.”
She suggests for a truly healthy indulgence, enjoy about an ounce of dark chocolate paired with slices of fresh or dried fruit, or crumble a few squares into a steamy cup of milk or as a topping to your favorite yogurt several times a week. ( that’s how I enjoy it here in France as well!)
Aaah… French butter. It’s just as much an icon as the Eiffel Tower. With butter this flavorful, I only use a little and that’s all I need. In fact, at many restaurants here in France, butter will not be automatically set down next to the bread; you have to ask for it. I keep a block in my apartment refrigerator and enjoy just a little schmear. With my little dabs of butter, I also enjoy some nuts and sumptuously prepared, healthy fatty fishes. And that’s exactly what Alissa Rumsey, RD, a spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends.
Rumsey explains, “Recent headlines have been confusing, with some declaring “butter is back”, while others warn of its dangers. The fact is, not all fats are bad. Science shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fat, such as that in fish, seeds and nuts, reduces risk of heart disease while saturated fat, like that in butter, increases both “bad” LDL cholesterol and “good” HDL cholesterol. So butter isn’t as bad for us as previously thought, but it is not as beneficial to our health as compared to polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.” She says solid pure fats like butter are ok in moderation, as a source of fat in an otherwise healthy, balanced diet. Stick to small amounts of butter, and utilize unsaturated fats such as olive oil, fatty fish, and nuts or seeds the rest of the time.
It would be a glaring omission if I didn’t discuss one of life’s greatest pleasures, a beautiful glass of wine. I enjoy a full-bodied glass with my dinner meal here in France. The vast subject of wine warrants a detailed discussion on the virtues of wine drinking. And the person to discuss this at length is Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, author of the book, The Essential Guide To Healthy Healing Foods.
“Alcohol’s effect – especially red wine, on health and quality of life has been on the public health radar screen for decades. The notion of moderate alcohol consumption offering health benefits dates back to 1973 – when the first research paper was published. Since then, there have been over a hundred studies conducted – with the majority linking alcohol with positive health outcomes,” says Retelny.
But she warns alcohol use is a double-edged sword; the shiny end holds the promise of improved health and longevity and the other, lackluster side, poses health risks – it all depends on the amount consumed, age and other characteristics of the person consuming the alcohol, as well as the specifics of the situation. “Moderate drinking, one drink for women and two drinks for men can enhance health status – according to research. A serving of wine is 5 ounces,” explains Retelny.
“Certain cultures, such as the French, have less heart disease even though they eat high saturated fat foods, and researchers believe the answer resveratrol (rez-veer-AH-trahl) could be in the wine they love to drink. Called “The French Paradox” the decades-old theory of eating high-fat foods but counteracting them with wine still needs more scientific explanation, yet a connecting observation is that wine drinkers typically lead a healthy lifestyle and they are typically more active, don’t smoke, and eat a wide variety of nutritious food.”
Retelny says it’s the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes that are high in chemical compounds called polyphenols. More than a heart elixir, polyphenols affect the taste, color, and mouthfeel (how wine feels in your mouth). Polyphenols are divided into two groups, called flavonoids and non-flavonoids. Flavonoids called anthocynanins give wine its rich color. Flavonoids called tannins provide the bulk of the feel in your mouth. The non-flavonoids contain the chemical resveratrol, a component in the skin of grapes. It’s thought to be a powerful player in health, particularly heart health.
She advises that abstinence from alcohol isn’t necessary if you enjoy a drink or two with a meal, but you should steer clear of it if you fall into any of the following categories:
• You can’t control the amount of alcohol you drink.
• You are pregnant or trying to conceive a child.
• You are taking prescription or nonprescription medications.
• You plan to drive or operate heavy equipment, such as a car, motorcycle, or even a bicycle.
• You plan to participate in physical activities or sports that require concentration and skill (e.g., swimming, ice skating or skate boarding, etc.)
If you fall into any of those categories or just don’t care for wine, Elana Natker, MS, RD offers up another tasty solution. “For those who cannot or do not drink red wine, 100% grape juice made with Concord grapes offers many of the same heart-health benefits. That’s because many of the same polyphenols – those plant nutrients that give Concord grapes their signature purple color – found in red wine are also in Concord grapes,” Natker says.
So here’s my final thought. Before yet another diet is created, let’s be more won over by the tastes and pleasure that real eating brings. Like I said, I made a fundamental shift in my own approach to health. When I used to walk on eggshells about everything I ate, it only left me feeling guilty and kept the pounds on. Learning from my many visits to France on how to truly balance my daily regime has kept me feeling fantastic with no ongoing weight issues back home. And that’s the best souvenir of all.