After spending a collective seven months in France over the past two years, I’ve come to the conclusion that health fads and diet trends are nearly nonexistent here.
I grew up in the Bay Area, the birthplace of the organic food movement in America and a haven for many of its contemporary advocates such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. I completed my undergraduate education at University of California Los Angeles, located in the center of image and health obsessed Beverly Hills, where juicing and Soul Cycle are considered the norm. You would think that Paris, a global city that considers itself the fashion capital of the world, teeming with models and celebrities and power players in the sphere of high society, would have developed its own set of according trends when it comes to diet and exercise. In the United States, we have seen waves of diet fads and fitness trends that dominate the health industry, from specific diet regimes (Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Paleo) to forms of exercise (aerobics, hot yoga, spinning, cross-fit). The key phrase here is the term “health industry,” which is an enormous U.S. market filled by various dominant brands that offer diet and exercise programs to clothing or gear.
So where is this health industry in France? The food industry is enormous, especially when it comes to French gourmet food items or wine. The fashion industry is booming in France, and includes fitness-based brands such as Nike and Adidas, which both feature large stores on the Champs Elysées. But where are the Pressed Juicerys and Soul Cycle studios and cross-fit gyms? Where are the gluten free all-natural food stores and French paleo cookbooks? Sure, there are yoga studios and vegetarian restaurants. But these are few and far between, and not advertised with cult-mentality as they are in the U.S. Somehow, the diet and exercise industry in France has thus far remained untouched by the trends sweeping across the U.S.
“The French Paradox,” has been under discussion since the phrase was coined in the 1980s. The basic idea behind it is that the French diet is high in fat, yet France has a relatively low rate of coronary heart disease and obesity. In 2004, French author Mireillle Guiliano published her first book, “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” which described a “non-diet” that was supposedly the secret to staying slim and enjoying rich foods. With no basis whatsoever in nutritional science, and entirely neglecting the use of empirical data, Mireille’s book was rejected by the scientific community as stereotypical and inaccurate. Regardless of the validity of Mireille’s claims and recommendations, the spirit of the book touches on something significant: a healthier relationship to food. With cheese, pastries, bread, wine, and chocolate embedded so deeply in its national history, France is not about to reject these products (which also represent a booming industry) as unhealthy and discourage their consumption. The power of tradition has kept food more wholly as a cultural symbolic artifact that represents family, history, community, and a relationship to the land (exemplified in the concept of terroir).
Upon further observation, it becomes starkly clear just why French people are notably healthier than their U.S. counterparts, and it begins and ends with a relationship to food. And by food, I mean real food – grown from the ground, raised on a farm, or made from scratch. A combination of stricter laws (i.e. boulangeries cannot claim the title unless they bake their bread from scratch), a heavily agrarian history, a tradition of excellence in cuisine, better school lunch programs, slower eating, and more meals eaten at home all result in a healthier relationship to food. Food is family, tradition, art, pleasure, and sustenance.
But with fast food gaining traction in the French restaurant industry and processed food companies encroaching on the increasingly popular French supermarket, can France maintain its healthy habits? My understanding of the American relationship to food is one that is flawed by the very nature of the system. Diets are a response to a food system that is constructed with an economic purpose first, health and sustenance second. Processed foods, industrial farming, and fast food have all pressured the American diet and created the need for combative measures from citizens who have little dictation in how the system works. With France’s agricultural industry consolidating and industrializing, mirroring the U.S., will these health problems begin to grow? Will a new industry open up in response to systemic shifts in the food structure? Or will France’s deeply embedded cultural history save its citizens from future obesity and heart disease?