A French Woman Goes Yankee

French freelance English teacher Stéphanie Cubain gets a taste of an American routine

by Stéphanie Cubain
stephanie goes american image
Photograph: Jake Chessum

Stéphanie Cubain: 43, Paris, freelance English teacher
Lives with: husband, four-year-old daughter and 95-year-old grandmother
Height: 5 feet 7 inches
Starting Weight: 147 pounds
Overall result: "This bizarre way of eating did not affect my waistline—thank God."

When a writer of my acquaintance asked if I was willing to take part in an experiment—eat like an American woman for two weeks—I thought, Pourquoi pas? Living on fast food, processed frozen diet meals and sugar-free soda sounded like an adventure. But my friends thought I was crazy, and my mother-in-law was horrified. She said I was going to spend two weeks poisoning myself and weakening my immune system.

Normally, I cook a lot. I know I’m a little geisha-like in this respect, but in the 13 years we’ve been married, I’ve never, ever served my husband a reheated store-bought dish. Our family—my husband, four-year-old daughter and grandmother—does not take breakfast together, but we usually have dinner ensemble. I do not go to a health club, but I walk all day long, climb the five flights to my apartment rather than take the lift and sometimes go running.

I’m told American women are constantly in a rush. That leads to a routine that sounds pretty unnatural. You starve during the day when you’re amazingly busy, then stuff yourself at night when you have a chance to unwind. Many American women also work out intensely almost every day. While my friends were sure I’d gain weight on a U.S.-style regimen, I thought otherwise. I expected to lose a few pounds because I’d be eating low-calorie foods and exercising more.

After 14 hours of eating—or, rather, not eating—like an American, I am so tired and hungry at dinnertime that when I order takeout food for the first time in my life, from a Thai restaurant, I get a little carried away. The bill, just for me, comes to 47 euros—$62!

After all, I ran for 45 minutes this morning and had nothing to eat all day except two protein bars, a banana, a bowl of packaged vegetable soup and a handful of almonds. By evening, I am desperate for food.

It is very hard for me to exercise without eating beforehand. After working out on an empty stomach this morning for 45 minutes, I really have to drag myself through the day while I work at home. I snack on cookies and Coke Zero, but they do nothing to boost my energy. By evening I am completely drained. All I want is to go to bed.

I find this diet very Jekyll and Hyde. All day long you fight yourself, then at night you totally let go. Today I am very busy getting ready for an event I’m doing at my home tomorrow. No time for lunch, but no time for exercise either, so while I am hungry, I’m not tired. During the day I eat two protein bars, four Oreo cookies and a ham-and-cheese sandwich bought at the supermarket. I feel I have been eating bland food all day, and by evening I am craving nicely prepared vegetables! Around 9 pm, I run off to a dinner party. I am so happy to see homemade food that I stuff myself at the buffet table and drink five glasses of Champagne. It feels great! After starving myself for two days, I have lost all my inhibitions about food.

Day five: I am curious to see how the experiment will work when my daughter, Violette, is home from school. I skip breakfast because I am running late on making lunch for her. And then I lose a lot of time riding the subway three stations to get to a McDonald’s for a takeout order of Big Mac and french fries.

When I get home with the food, Violette is curious about my Big Mac but doesn’t like the way it smells. I can’t decide whether I will take her to a MacDo, as the French call it. I think the later she tries it, the better. On the other hand, she usually eats so healthfully that a single exposure to that kind of food might bolster her immune system!

First published in the June 2013 issue

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