Recently I shared the major findings from the most comprehensive and up to date study of obesity and overweight figures from around the world. While most of it was really pretty depressing stuff – basically the world is fat and getting fatter – there were glimpses of light. Most notably women in a small selection of countries, including France and Japan, have not gotten any fatter in the last 40 years. So what are they doing to protect them from this global epidemic? What can we learn from their eating and lifestyle habits to help us get and stay lean?
Having spent a decent amount of time in both countries here are my observations:
They eat proper meals
Both the French and the Japanese give priority to mealtimes. I worked waitressing in a restaurant in Paris when I was a student and noted that the local business workers came for lunch. Rather than grabbing a sandwich at their desks, they sat down in the restaurant and ate a proper meal with a knife and fork. They chatted and socialised with colleagues, taking their time with the meal, before then returning to work.
They don’t snack
Because they eat proper meals that satisfy, they don’t need to snack constantly between meals. I was lately looking at new data for Australian food and drink consumption and the average number of eating occasions was 7! The French and Japanese don’t do this – they stick far more closely to their traditional 3 meals a day.
They don’t diet
Food plays an important and pleasurable role in the lives of both the French ad the Japanese. They simply wouldn’t dream of cutting out favourite foods or following restrictive diets. As a result they don’t have the same extensive range of ‘diet’ foods and modified foods such as low fat, low carb and so on, as Australia, the UK and the US do. I recommend avoiding all such products and focus instead on fresh wholesome foods – just as they do.
They eat loads of plants
In both France and Japan you’ll notice you are almost always served a side salad either as an entrée or to accompany your meal. There are then additional vegies in the main course and plenty of leafy greens or in Japan, seaweed. This delivers them terrific levels of protective phytonutrients, while keeping the energy density of the meal down.
They move in their everyday lives
While in cities like Sydney you’ll find several gyms in pretty much every suburb, it’s much harder to find a gym in Tokyo. I have now stayed at several hotels in Tokyo and to date none of them have had a gym! In Paris I was a member of a gym and they certainly loved their group exercise classes, but it wasn’t nearly so commonplace to attend a gym as it is in Australia.
Now that doesn’t mean I think gyms are bad – quite the contrary they are an effective way of building exercise into your life. But what is notable about the French and Japanese is that they are instead much more active in their daily lives. They walk more, they cycle as a means of transport, the Japanese love to garden, they dance and the major cities have excellent public transport so they use cars less and have to walk at least part of the journey. Be careful not to tick the exercise box when you’ve been to the gym and then spend the rest of the day on your bum!
They eat smaller portions
In Tokyo you’ll find plenty of cake shops with beautifully presented cakes and desserts in the window. But notably the portion size is considerably smaller than what you’ll see in a similar shop in the US, Australia or UK. Take a look in a French patisserie and you’ll find the same thing. Both countries have their sweet treats, but they go for quality over quantity, and don’t consume them every day.
Their kids eat a proper lunch
In Tokyo I visited a primary school and observed the kids having their lunch. This was a proper cooked meal and all the kids had the same thing, served to them on a tray that they then sat down at tables to eat together. It was essentially the Dr Joanna Plate with a bowl of salad, pickled vegetables, a plate of grilled fish, a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup and a carton of milk. It was wonderful to see.
When I was a student dietitian in Scotland one of my placements was at a local school that had both Scottish and French kids (several French oil companies have offices in Aberdeen in Scotland’s Northeast). At lunchtime it was notable that while the Scottish children tucked into their chips with gravy and grated cheese (honestly!), the French kids automatically picked up a salad, cooked meal and had fruit and yoghurt or cheese for dessert.
The lesson from both of these countries is that good eating habits are established in childhood, becoming second nature.
All of these factors are helpful to weight control and overall good health. If we take these on board and apply them to our own lives they can help us to get and stay lean. Plus it all sounds pretty delicious to me!