French cuisine is often considered to be the best in the world; meals are prepared with compassion and then eaten with friends and family. The food itself is something that the average American urbanite would look at and say, “This can’t be good for me.” Oddly enough, though, France is not a nation plagued by obesity (though American influence is changing that).
For a people who eat such bad things and smoke like chimneys, Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen) are remarkably healthy. One explanation for this paradox is the existence of a strong, traditional food culture.
French people typically eat 3 meals per day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You might say, “Well, hey, I do that too,” but the odds are you probably snack between meals as well. Therein lies the difference: the French don’t snack. There’s a cultural taboo on leisurely mastication. (By the way, I checked and this is not the first time someone has written “leisurely mastication”).
Despite popular stereotypes, French meals are quite diverse in their content. Heavier, unhealthy foods tend to be found in French restaurants and cafes. Outside of those, families prepare lighter dishes made from fresh ingredients (you don’t usually hear about this though). Vegetarian dishes are somewhat difficult to find because vegetarianism itself is quite rare in the country.
Meals in France really are social occasions. Restaurants open for about 2 hours at lunch and patrons spend much more time enjoying the full experience than what you see during America’s lunch rush. You spend much more time eating, and you do it with friends.
As I alluded to, eating habits in France are changing. An influx of Western fast food restaurants is introducing a foreign mindset of ubiquitous food availability throughout the day. In response, the French are eating more processed fast food and gaining weight. While there has been some cultural backlash, its unlikely that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon.
One word I haven’t used to describe French food culture is heritage. In fact, France’s food heritage is one of change. Around 200 years ago, French farmers ate very meager meals (by today’s standards). A rising aristocracy turned food into a status symbol so that what you ate was symbolic of where you stood on the social ladder. This social reinforcement (at a time when food was scarce) survived the mid-19th-century and strongly influences today’s food culture.
Regardless of its source, France’s pervasive and strong food culture makes it possible for its people to eat relatively unhealthy food yet remain very healthy. Unwritten social rules do what expensive pills and diet fads have been unable to do in the United States.