French Lesson: Eat Less, Enjoy More

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Ask Dr. Paul Rozin, professor of psychology, how he got interested in the “ecology of eating” in the United States and France, and he responds bluntly.

“I am interested in food choice, and upset with the way in which one of the great pleasures of life—eating—has been corrupted in the U.S.A., especially among women,” Rozin says. “The French seem to have a fine eating experience and be healthy, without worrying much, so I thought we would have much to learn by studying this.”

Rozin’s most recent research article, “The Ecology of Eating: Smaller Portion Sizes in France Than in the United States Help Explain the French Paradox,” confirms that the portions of food in France—even in international chains such as McDonald’s—are smaller than those in the U.S. The “paradox” he refers to is the fact that the French have a lower mortality rate from heart disease even though their diet contains proportionately more total and saturated fat than the American diet.

“The French paradox is a paradox only if one assumes that level of fat or saturated fat in the diet (or blood cholesterol) is the major cause of cardiovascular disease,” Rozin writes in the article, which was published in the September issue of Psychological Science. “Recent analyses suggest that the importance of fat intake as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease has been greatly exaggerated.” While many reasons have been offered for the apparent paradox (genetic differences in metabolism, a less stressful lifestyle, as well as more exercise and wine), Rozin decided to address “one potentially important reason why the French are thinner than Americans: They seem to eat less.”

After comparing portion sizes at comparable restaurants in Philadelphia and Paris—from McDonald’s to “local Chinese” to a “local French bistro”—he and his team of researchers found that the mean American portion size (346 grams) was 25 percent larger than its French counterpart (277 grams). The restaurants, they wrote, “were in similar neighborhoods and had similar prices and the same types of foods.”

Rozin used the word ecology in the title “because it has to do with the eating environment,” he explains. “The emphasis is on the world of the eater, not the eater himself. Almost all prior focus has been on the eater.”

The American environment stresses abundance, he and his team found. “Portion size was mentioned significantly more frequently” (9.3 percent of the restaurants cited) in the Philadelphia Zagat survey than in its Parisian counterpart (3.5 percent). The American cookbook they examined (The Joy of Cooking) provided “larger meat and soup portions” than its French counterpart (Je sais cuisiner) though the American vegetable portions were smaller. “For some of the most calorically dense foods,” they wrote, “French recipe portions are smaller than American recipe portions.”

Perhaps the biggest paradox of all is the fact that the French spend more time eating, even though they eat less. In the Paris McDonald’s, the researchers found that customers averaged 22.2 minutes at table, compared with 14.4 minutes at the Philadelphia McDonald’s. 

One restaurant pairing “does not decide the issue,” Rozin and his team acknowledge, “and these observations would have to be repeated in other fast-food restaurants” as well as in full restaurants and in meals at home.


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