French don’t snack!

The little boy was only 5 years old at the time of this incident. His family went over to their uncle’s for dinner. They were joined there by other aunts and uncles and so the dinner was a grand affair. Sometime after this lavish dinner, this 5 year old boy was still hungry and so requested for an apple. His father informed him that he can’t have an apple post-dinner. So, as expected, the boy started throwing a temper tantrum and was stomping around the room. In circumstances like these, seniority matters and one of the aunts pleaded on the boy’s behalf and suggested that perhaps he could have half an apple. But the father of the boy was firm about his decision and would have none of it. Little boy did not get an apple that night and eventually had to sleep without eating one.

This happened a while ago. That 5 year old boy is now a PhD in neuro biology and an obesity researcher and author. He clearly remember the story because this is the only surviving video of him as a child – him throwing this temper tantrum over not getting an apple after the dinner. His name is Stephen Guyenet.

The incident is not very strange according to him and what most people don’t realize is that boy’s father is French! I didn’t know it myself but French generally speaking, don’t snack between meals. Same is expected from children. In fact, children pretty much eat the same food as their parents and if you are coming from a culture where children are actually encouraged to snack and eat children-friendly (pasta, noodles and other crap) food, this will seem counter-intuitive. It’s not that they spend less time cooking and eating food, quite the opposite actually. They put in a lot of effort and time in cooking and enjoying their food. If Americans love their fast food, then French love their slow food. Children in French schools get a 2 hour break in the afternoon to enjoy their 4 course lunch. But once they have had their lunch and are fully refreshed for the rest of the afternoon, no more snacking until the next meal.

Now the reason this story is very interesting is because French children have one of the lowest rates of obesity amongst first world countries and the obesity rates have not risen for last one decade. One could be tempted to think that it’s the quality of food alone or macro-nutrient ratio is behind this.  But a survey indicated that French actually know less about basic nutrition. So food quality can only be one of the variables in this multi factorial equation of health. The French relationship to food and eating behaviour is another variable.

Child Obesity Rates

I ran into Karen Le Billon’s wonderful blog and Karen explains the French relationship to food.

From her blog

Of the four countries surveyed (the US, France, Japan, and Belgium), the US stood out: Americans tend to associate food with health, not with pleasure…

When shown a picture of a chocolate cake, the most frequent responses from Americans were ‘guilt’ and ‘calories’. The French response: ‘celebration’ and ‘pleasure’. The French associate a picture of ‘heavy cream’ with the word ‘whipped’, whereas the Americans described it as ‘unhealthy.

It’s called the French paradox but I don’t consider it a paradox at all: French spend twice as much time as Americans eating and they consume dairy and meal products in large quantities, yet are less overweight or obese, and have lower rates of heart disease than Americans.

Now this is not a call to eating unholy amounts of meat and dairy. And before you get the idea that they can have their cake and eat it too, French intuitively understand that food quality matters. They are extremely smart about imparting food wisdom to children. Again from Karen’s blog

In part, it’s because French school lunches are used as a pedagogical tool, introducing a broad range of dishes, fresh vegetables, and fruits. Strict Ministry of Education regulations ensure that fried food is served no more than once per month, children drink only water at lunch; instead of flavored milk, traditional cheeses or yogurts are served. Ketchup is served a maximum of once per week–and only with foods with which it is traditionally used as a condiment, such as steak. Portion sizes are limited (one piece of delicious baguette per child, at my daughters’ school). And vending machines are banned in all schools. Yes, that means no soda pop, no processed food, and no fast food. Kids learn to like the taste of ‘whole food’. This doesn’t mean deprivation, but rather moderation: sweet treats (like Cherry Clafoutis in cherry season, or Chocolate Mousse) are served once a week. So French kids learn to ‘treat treats as treats’, to use Michael Pollan’s phrase.”

She has authored couple of books, one of them called “French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything

Parents typically ask the children “if they are still hungry” and not “if they are feeling full”. Subtle difference. Children are encouraged to taste (and not eat) green leafy vegetables because they realize that it takes up to 7-15 times for a child to start eating a new food.

So this food educations starts in school and is actively supported at home.

I have over time managed to convince my 4 and a half year old daughter to eat egg yellow. It works better when she’s also offered blueberries with eggsJ. It could be the case of trying to impress dad but she has come a long way from having nothing to do with the yellow portion to tasting bits of it to having the whole yolk in one go.


One of the points that struck me is that healthier societies are not healthier because they know a lot about nutrition. In fact, if you look at modern hunter gatherer societies like Katavans or Hazda, they are not even consciously thinking about avoiding diabetes or obesity. They don’t have access to modern education and perhaps know very little about enzymes and cellular bio chemistry.

Katavans diet is up to 70% carbs (fruits, tubers, honey) and they are essentially chronic disease free. Ironically, the fattest women are the ones who are in their prime to deliver a child and from there on, they will continue to lose fat. The most important point to note is that the carbohydrates in their diet is not the artificial kind – it’s not refined flours or soda or sugar candies and skittles. I bet the disease statistics will look very different if they had access to a supermarket or if you had orange juice growing on the trees.

Why I don’t believe in cheat meals or cheat days

Couple of days ago, the day before Good Friday to be precise a normally quiet lady at work remarked as I was preparing my typical lunch salad that she has never seen anyone eat so clean and healthy. And she’s never seen me having the occasional doughnuts or muffins.  I quote “It’s really very impressive, I have never seen anyone eat such healthy food, every single day.” I thanked her for the compliment and this post is not to toot my own horn.  2 days later it’s made me ask a bunch of questions about my lunch and food in general and I believe this enquiry will be helpful to the readers of this post. How do I manage to eat clean and nutrient-dense lunch every day? For that matter, how do I manage to eat clean nearly all the time? Less than 2 years ago, I used to love high-sugar processes foods and junk-foods. There is something that has definitely shifted?

Let’s talk about my typical office lunch which invariably gets health approval from all and sundry. If I could get a cent for every time I heard the world ‘healthy’ to describe my lunch.

So as the photo suggests, it’s typically mixed salad leaves, some colourful vegetables like purple cabbage, carrot, a big avocado. If I want a bit more colour, I will put half a beetroot. Sometimes I put goat milk feta.  So the foundation of salad is plants based. On this I will add meat of some sort: canned wild caught salmon or canned sardines or organic chicken livers or lamb curry or wild goat or steak cut into pieces. I will sprinkle some sunflower seeds and pumpkin kernels and maybe a spoon of MCT oil – this is my dressing. I absolutely don’t use any commercial salad dressing. So, all in all, I am getting a lot of plants and proteins and fat into the first of my 2 meals of the day. More importantly, I am getting a lot of live enzymes. Everyone intuitively knows this is a healthy meal (well, some may frown upon the meat), yet most find it very hard to eat this even once a week let alone every single day.

How have I managed to be so consistent day in and day out with my lunch? It’s not the tastiest lunch in the world you know. It also takes a bit of time to eat it unlike a sandwich or a scone or a quiche which passes off as lunch these days. Is it just my will power? Is it just that I feel awesome about how the food makes me feel and so I keep eating the same way? That’s a bit chicken and egg.

One of the secrets to my success with eating healthily has been has been my dislike for the concept of “cheat days”. I don’t think of my meal as something I only need to do for 5 days a week and then for 2 days of the week, anything goes in the name of lunch. Of course I crave variety and I almost never have salad again in the night. The weekend lunches again are a bit different from the 5 weekday lunches, but they are again whole food based as well. I don’t cheat over the weekends or I don’t treat the whole day as a cheat day. ‘Cheat days’ is a slippery slope. Human beings have a tendency to get away with as much as they can. If we can get away with less sleep, we will keep doing it. If we can get away with eating ice cream every night without any apparent health impact, we will keep doing it. In fact, before you know it, you will start doing it twice a week and worse. In my opinion, ‘Cheat days’ takes the control away from you and eventually weakens your will power overtime. It may sound a bit subtle but it breeds the notion that what you day 5 days a week is a bit different from what you do other 2 days of the week.

So, what’s the alternative? What are we supposed to do?

I am definitely an 80/20 guy. In food terms it could mean that you eat well 80% of the time and 20% of the time, you cut yourself some slack. My 80/20 is more like 95/5. The important point is that I don’t considering eating less than optimal cheating or failure. It is what it is. I am aware of the choice I am making and I understand the impact of my choice. Orange cake with cream on the side or kumara fries are two of my weaknesses. I don’t indulge in them 95% of the time but when we are out by the waterfront and it’s a clear day, I find myself ordering a slice of orange cake. I am aware of the consequences – it’s going to raise my blood sugar, turn of fat burning, I am getting some gluten too. But like I have often said and I don’t know who to credit for this quote ‘Eat the most restrictive diet you can enjoy, not the most restrictive diet you can tolerate.’  So eat the damn slice of cake or pizza and get done with it and don’t look back or worry about it. Here is another trick I have learnt – often we only need one quarter or half of what you are pining to eat to get over the craving. You don’t need to eat the entire pizza or entire doughnut – you will find that half or even quarter of doughnut would get you over the sugar crave or the junk-food delight.

To cake or not to cake? If a little slice will help you eat the salad…

 Food is not just about nutrient density. Sure it fuels our body and brain and provides vitality to our cells. But we have also have emotional and spiritual connection to the food we eat. There is a reason why some foods are called comfort foods. Foods your mother made lovingly for you as a child.  It’s also important to be at peace with the food you are eating. I could give you the best grass fed steak in the world, but if it’s odd with your world view and you don’t want to consume meat, what good is it?