What our Stomachs & Health Can Learn from the French
Yes, I am like many American women, I am a Francophile. Ever since I was young, I have loved everything about France – their language, food, architecture, culture, and how French women dress. My dream is to have a pied-à-terre in Paris and visit often. I am not exactly sure why j’adore Paris, but, it may be partly because of my mother. My mother is fluent in French, she cooked French food, and made me listen to Edith Piaf CDs. All of that mixed with watching movies and Julia Child cooking shows and reading books, I was hooked. A few years ago, I finally had the opportunity to visit Paris. On the flight over, I asked my husband, “what if it is not as wonderful in real life as it is in my head?” There was no need for any concern. As soon as we arrived, we went to a café for breakfast and as I ate a croissant and drank a café crème, I was in heaven.
Like many countries around the world, France is changing in terms of longer work days, shorter lunches, and fast food places like McDonald’s popping up. I personally think this is a pity and I hope France does not lose some of what makes it such a wonderful and special country. That being said, France is still the France we know of long lunches, long vacations, and meals filled with cheese, butter, bread, and wine. I believe that how the French eat, work, live, and play can teach Americans useful lessons in how to better manage chronic diseases, including obesity and diabetes, as well as digestive disorders.
France vs. United States:
- Eat: Many offices and businesses in France close during lunch so their employees can relax and enjoy a proper meal. Lunch can be an hour and a half composed of a first course, a main course, and a dessert. Even with all this food, the French on average are thinner than Americans. However, as I mentioned, times are changing and for some, lunches can be 22 minutes and a simple ham and cheese on a baguette. Lunch in the United States is on average 30 minutes or less and only 1 in 5 people leave their desk for lunch. The other 4 eat at their desk. No wonder our keyboards are so dirty.
- Work: The French on average work 35 hours per week. Many of the French now work longer but if they work 39.5 hours or more a week, they receive additional vacation days, as in 23 more a year. Americans, on average, work 47 hours per week and there are no bonuses.
- Lifestyle: The French have an appreciation for life and it shows in many ways. For example, when they eat cheese, they take the time to savor a small piece of good real cheese made naturally and without chemicals. They buy only a few pieces of good quality clothing that lasts for years and can be updated with a nice scarf or accessory. They sit and enjoy people watching while drinking a cup coffee or glass of wine. They walk and move including going to the bakery to buy fresh made baguettes for dinner and breakfast the next day.
- Play: The French on average earn about 30 vacation days a year and use them. Americans earn on average 15 days, using 10, with many using 5 or even zero. More than half of Americans continue to work while on vacation.
What does all this have to do with our health and digestion? A lot. In the United States, we work a lot but do not play enough. When we do play, we tend to squish it all into the weekends and one week a year. Working long days and weeks and not taking vacations leads to stress, less time to take care of ourselves, including eating well, relaxing, exercising, and just being. As we wolf down our sandwich, salad, leftovers, or fast food meal while working or driving, we lose our ability to enjoy the food. Instead of food being something that provides us joy and flavor, it becomes something we just need to do. What we eat and how it is made matters less and instead the focus is more on convenience and cost. That does not usually correlate with healthy and real food. Also, eating mindlessly and quickly does not allow the 20 minutes it takes our brain to register that we are full, so we tend to overeat resulting in more calories and eventually more weight. Additionally, if we are not leaving our desks to eat lunch then we are also most likely sitting too much throughout the day. Sitting all day has been shown to increase heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Not taking a lunch break during the day or neglecting to take vacation time leads to stress and can have negative affects on our digestive system. Currently 1 in 7 Americans have irritable bowel syndrome. Stress triggers our fight or flight response and our blood moves to the muscles in our extremities and away from our digestive system. This affects the amount of stomach acid produced, the motility of our intestines, and all of this may lead to nausea, diarrhea or constipation, indigestion, inflammation, and can exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and ulcers. Chronic stress also affects our sleep, memory, immune system, mood, and anxiety. We are more likely to get sick, take longer to heal from injuries, become depressed, overeat, and not exercise. All of these can affect our digestive symptoms as well as have a role in chronic disease.
I believe in working hard, but, I also think taking time for ourselves every day and taking a vacation where you do not check your email and phone messages is just as important. We need time to recharge and it will actually make us better and more attentive at work. After breaks, we have more energy and creativity, our ability to adapt and solve problems is improved, and we are happier and nicer colleagues.
So, take a lunch break, eat real food and eat it slowly and mindfully away from the computer, television, and car, use your vacation days, and relax. Let those emails pile up while you are away, you will be able to deal with them better once you return. Your stomach and health will thank you for it.
Photo taken by Alessandro Prada on Flickr