I have a friend whose health regimes over the years have entertained and sometimes alarmed me. When I first moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, she believed passionately in the benefits of high colonics (not just colonics). Over the years I saw her go on an all-liquid diet, an all-protein diet, a fasting diet and a diet in which she ate clay.
To me, her belief in these diets bespoke a naive and very American faith in quick fixes, fixes that one quickly outgrows and leaves behind, like the forlorn toy in “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
In the meantime, ignoring all diet fads, I married, entered my 40s, developed a more serious interest in food and wine, and things expanded pretty much as you would expect. I joined a gym. I tried to be aware of what I was eating, but there were certain moods in which I felt completely incapable of restraint. Once, at a poker game, I saw a look of horror cross a friend’s face as she watched me go back for a third round of deep-fried duck.
I wanted to believe that I could moderate my weight simply through my own good common sense. Yet I was always vowing to drop some pounds and feel better next week.
At last, I have found a diet book that I can take to my heart, probably because it confirms everything I already think. It just puts it into clearer focus.
The book is “French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure” by Mireille Guiliano. Turns out that French women, like the gamblers in “Bells Are Ringing,” have a system. It’s a system of pleasures and compensations, of enjoying what you are allowing yourself and not focusing on what you are denying yourself.
French women, says Guiliano, never talk about diets; they talk about food. They love food. That seemed essential to me. I find diet talk deeply boring.
Guiliano has been bicultural since the 1960s, when she came to Weston, Mass., as an exchange student. Here, she learned to love chocolate-chip cookies and brownies. She didn’t quite realize how much America had changed her until she sailed home to France and saw her father’s stunned expression. His greeting was, “You look like a sack of potatoes.”
She had “suffered a catastrophe” of 20 pounds, and she gained 10 more in the next few months. Her family seemed baffled about how to help her; it was the family physician, whom she refers to as “Dr. Miracle,” who kindly set her on the road back to moderation. She bases her book on his advice.
Guiliano is not going to win any awards for modesty; in her introduction she states, “I like to believe that I embody the best parts of being American and being French.” She is a busy professional, president and chief executive of Champagne Veuve Clicquot, which means she eats full meals in restaurants about 300 times a year. (She advises not to eat the bread pre-appetizer unless you are faint from hunger.)
If I might distill the psychological message of the book, it would be this: Admit that you have two selves, the narcissist who wants to be svelte and the hedonist who craves pleasure. You must “broker a detente” between these two selves and be ashamed of neither one.
Practically speaking, Guiliano recommends a three-part program, starting sans deprivation. Your first task is to simply write down every single thing you eat for three weeks. (I skipped this part.) This affords you a perch from which to analyze your “offenders,” which might be skipping breakfast, eating at irregular times, or that old standby, eating junk.
After analysis, you clear the playing field with a weekend of eating only “magical” leek soup. This weekend will not be fun, and mine was further marred by a caffeine-withdrawal headache (Guiliano should make a one-cup allowance for coffee-heads). But I did emerge the day after with a new attitude: When faced with a restaurant brunch plate of eggs, bacon and home fries, I was a tad grossed out and ate only about half of what I would normally have consumed.
After two days of broth, you begin “recasting,” which means cutting out those “offenders” as well as adopting a shift in your habits. You will set the table for every meal, eat smaller portions and take time chewing your food.
You will eat breakfast whether or not you’re hungry. You will not eat mindlessly. You will eat yogurt and drink water instead of snacking. You will tend toward 4- to 6-ounce servings. You will not let yourself get hungry but neither will you let yourself get stuffed. You will not weigh yourself obsessively but will pay attention to how the clothes are hanging on your body. You will embrace quality over quantity.
Her suggested menus are elegant and simple. A summer day would start with a sliver of cheese, half a cup of muesli with blueberries, and coffee or tea. At lunch you would have a BLT, a cup of raspberries and a noncaloric drink. At dinner, grilled chicken, fennel gratin, arugula salad, grilled peaches with lemon thyme and a glass of wine. It’s very doable.
You have to love a diet book that includes a recipe for tagliatelle with lemon, creme fraiche and tons of Parmesan cheese (just 3 ounces per person, followed with fish or meat). Rich, yes, and wonderfully lemony. The key is the small portion.
Unfortunately, though, the recipes don’t seem to have been tested; portion sizes were way off. Guiliano says the tagliatelle yields four servings, but each weighed 8 ounces. A marvelous asparagus flan that serves four could easily have served eight. Other problems arise, such as vague instructions (how to prep the raw leeks for the leek soup), insufficient cooking times (on the flan) and optional ingredients for at least one dish that never appear in the body of the recipe.
Everything we tested ranged from satisfying to delicious, though. The chicken au Champagne, with bone in and skin on, does not taste like diet food. Cooked pears with cinnamon are lovely, if a little austere. The asparagus flan, almost a crust-less quiche, is flecked with crisp bacon and so creamy you would never miss the crust.
For the woman who has at least thought about these issues, parts of the book should be ignored or modified. I know I should drink a lot of water, a tip Guiliano finds so crucial that she says it in about 57 ways (which did make me drink more, I admit). I don’t feel I need a lecture on cooking with quality ingredients or on eating fruits and vegetables in season. (Last week I bought some cherries from Chile at Costco, and I thoroughly enjoyed them.) I found myself saying “duh” to a lot of the cooking tips, such as her suggestion to try “a slight sprinkle of cinnamon on lamb.”
Another cultural gulf may be in Guiliano’s fierce hatred of gyms. “It all seems like a great, joyless effort: cutting two hours out of the precious day,” she says, but most of us have figured out how to do it much faster. She is right that that “too many women exercise so that they end up with oversize appetites just to refuel their bodies. They become like (gym) rats on a treadmill.”
It is harder here, though, than in Paris and New York to increase our incidental walking as she advises, and with most health experts advising a minimum of 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity a day, it only seems sensible for an Angelena to jump on a treadmill at home or at a nearby gym.
But Guiliano offers a valuable analysis of American diets, which she describes as “unsustainable extremism.” She takes witty pleasure in skewering Atkins and other similar regimes: “The unstated principle seems to be,” she says, to “bore yourself to death with one kind of food group.” She says most French women would find the idea that “you can stuff yourself silly with bacon as long as bread doesn’t pass your lips” to be “utterly degueulasse” (disgusting).
Let them eat bread
She urges instead a balanced relation to food and life. Being French, she is a great defender of bread. “To me it’s just sad that so many people are forgoing one of life’s most elemental pleasures for the sake of a dead-end weight-loss strategy.”
She identifies an important cultural paradox when she says, “America, the paragon of egalitarian values, somehow suffers from a gastronomic class system unknown in France. The right and the opportunity to enjoy the Earth’s seasonal best seems to be monopolized by an elite.” She is, of course, correct that the large majority of us are conditioned to accept bland, processed food that packaging and marketing have made appear wholesome. She is also correct that American women often eat on the sly, and the result is much more guilt than pleasure.
So she stresses pleasure, the triumph of her philosophy. While she’s at it, she takes a swipe at American attitudes about marriage. “I observe many women failing to embrace love as pleasure,” she says. “Relationships and marriage can be pursued with the same grim determination that some bring to their careers (there has even been a recent book about applying MBA training to finding a husband).” The existence of that book depressed me too. This one I found buoying.