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.