Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat is an interesting addition to the huge and varied selection of diet books out there in the world, partly because it’s not a diet book as such. It’s part memoir (the author’s story of a brief flirtation with fatness on an exchange program to America in her youth and lots of stories about life in a well-heeled French country family and how they ate, amongst other things), part recipe book (everything sounded delicious and French and not very diety) and part food and lifestyle advice.
I can’t imagine that it’s for everyone – Guiliano has a tendency to brand Americans in particular as lazy slobs in ‘garish running shoes’ who gobble corn on the cob (which in France, apparently, is mostly reserved for livestock) and eat all sorts of other bland, processed horrors by the bucketload. And I’m sure it grates on some people to be told that food in supermarkets is crap and the sensible thing is to shop daily in farmer’s markets and cook with champagne (lots of plugs for champagne from the CEO of Veuve Cliquot throughout the book, naturally). Personally though, I found what you could perhaps call the pretentiousness of the author’s style…well… French. Just like Parisian waiters tend to see themselves as purveyors of fine food rather than fine service, Guiliano seems less concerned with keeping you on side than with enticing you with a new way of life.
Now maybe I feel this way because I live in central London within walking distance of a market, and both my office and flat are situated up numerous flights of stairs (Guiliano is resolute on the importance of climbing stairs). While we Brits do love slouching in front of the TV with big bowls of pasta more than the elegant French do, we’re undoubtedly closer to the French way of life than the average American (we’re still Europeans at the end of the day – let’s not let the miserable Brexit situation get that twisted). God knows how the average suburban small-town American would follow her rules without a load of hassle, even with the best will in the world.
When I visited my mother’s father in Los Angeles a few years ago, after a week of stuffing my face with more food than even my greedy self could handle (for the first time in my life I was leaving half a plate of food and getting called ‘a little bird’ by waitresses), I tried to take a walk to the shops. My granddad was so confused. He kept telling me he could drive me to the mall, and even after I left the house he came after me in the car ten minutes later. I guess that point is twofold: 1) this book is going to be a tough follow for people who live in places that aren’t designed for French living and 2) Mireille Guiliano has a point about the fact that this is a different lifestyle that is likely to have different results for weight management.
And it’s not that Americans are lazy – many US adults report working 47 hours a week and I know from working with them that their phones are usually never off (they’ll ring you at crazy hours of the morning from the middle of that hellish LA traffic jam!). You don’t get that in France, it’s not the culture – their 35-hour maximum working week is LAW! The French expect a different work-life balance than Americans, and even Brits, and I think there’s something charming about that. It’s that culture that has the author of this book proposing three-course menus for lunch and dinner quite casually.
To be fair to Mirelle Guiliano, she’s quite clear at the beginning of the book that this is not a prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach to diet and lifestyle. She pretty much tells you to enjoy the read (and it is enjoyable as a book in its own right) and take whatever you want from it and leave the rest. I imagine her saying that with a Gallic shrug, of course. Much of her useful advice is not rocket science (but we all know that weight management is not that difficult in theory). However, the ingenuity is in her approach. Guiliano preaches that healthier choices should be incremental, lifelong and enjoyable. She made me think of myself as a chic Parisian woman as I huff and puff my way up the stairs rather than using the lift, as I scale back on the pasta without feeling guilty about it when I do eat it, as I set about trying to eat more seasonal veg. This book is unlikely to produce quick or impressive results, but is a very pleasant way of improving your habits bit by bit, and settling into changes that are sustainable, which if you just want to stay in better overall shape while eating chocolate and drinking wine, is just the ticket.