The Big Switch: A French Woman and an American Woman Trade Diets

Why are French women thin, even at midlife? To find out, we talked an American woman into bidding adieu to Diet Coke, energy bars and packaged cookies and a French woman into saying bonjour to the very same foods. They also switched lifestyles. Here’s what we found

by Susan Swimmer and Stéphanie Cubain
the big switch image
Photograph: Jake Chessum

A few months back, several of us at More were chatting about our recent experiences in Paris when we realized we’d all been shocked by the same sight: the number of over-40 women who were really thin. And we weren’t talking models or socialites; these were real people, just walking the streets of the city. “I was struck by how little the French resemble their midsection-challenged American counterparts,” recalls More’s contributing fashion features editor, Susan Swimmer. “They eat creamy cheeses, red meat and unlimited wine; they have a laissez-faire approach to exercise—in other words, they all seem to be endowed with the metabolism of teenage boys.”

It took just a few minutes of investigating to confirm our impressions as fact: Official statistics show that while the average française stands five foot three and weighs 139 pounds, a typical American woman is the same height but 27 pounds heavier. The -really annoying part? On average, the French consume a slightly higher percentage of fat in their diets (38 percent of total calories) than Americans do (34 percent).

In an attempt to explain this French paradox—fatty food and slender women—More decided to stage an experiment. What would happen if a working mother in New York switched diets and general lifestyle for two weeks with her Paris match? Would one gain weight? Would the other lose? Which would feel more energetic? More’s Susan Swimmer immediately threw her chapeau into the ring to become the American guinea pig; Parisian Stéphanie Cubain, a freelance English teacher, stepped up to the challenge on the French side.

For eating guidelines, we turned to Manuel Villacorta, RD, a San Francisco–based nutritionist and the author of Eating Free: The Carb-Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Embrace Your Hunger and Keep the Weight Off for Good. Villacorta based these regimens on the food patterns of his clients, who tend to be high-powered American women (translation: crazy busy and with enough income to avoid cooking at home except when they want to), as well as on his observations of similarly situated Europeans.

The rules of the American diet-exercise regimen were: Eat lots of takeout, processed and fast foods; skip breakfast or have it late; multitask while downing food; go to restaurants often; consume most calories at dinner; and exercise strenuously, usually at a gym, most days of the week. The Continental plan? Cook most of your meals, including substantial breakfasts and lunches; focus on high-quality, minimally processed foods; sit down for meals, preferably with family; eat slowly; and exercise mainly by walking around doing errands.

Here, each woman explains how she fared in the experiment.

Part 1: An American in Paris

Part 2: A French Woman Goes Yankee

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