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!

Overall, I am pleased by this weekend. I had thought it would be quite difficult for me to follow the American diet while taking care of my family. The secret is not to have lunch with friends, which would lead to eating in a very French way.

If I’m going to make it through this experiment, I’ll have to upgrade my choice of processed foods. I eat canned ravioli that is so bad, I’d rather eat worms! No kidding, I once tried some grilled worms at a market in Asia and was pleasantly surprised. Don’t forget, I’m French; I love to eat frogs and snails and rabbits. But cheap processed foods can smell really awful and taste disgusting.

At the supermarket one night, I buy a packaged low-fat dish of minced meat and puree. I warm it in the microwave for dinner, but it looks and smells like dog food. My husband and my grandmother are appalled; I just throw the food away. My husband can’t get used to seeing me eat microwaved food. He makes so many comments, I finally have to tell him to shut up.

Day 10: I have been eating most of my meals standing up. Today I have Chinese takeout—a fresh spring roll—after a tough exercise class and eat it while walking to the subway. I am cold, hungry and tired and do not get any pleasure from this lunch. I would have preferred a warm crêpe with ham and cheese to fill me up after so much effort.

My family has totally deserted the dining table. At night I eat alone, slouched on my couch in front of the fireplace. The fact that we don’t sit properly at the table makes us less attentive to what and how we eat. We eat fast, walking back and forth to the kitchen, talking to one another but eating on our own. It’s more like living with roommates than having a family life.

My husband and I take Violette to the McDonald’s inside the Louvre on Sunday. Of course, if it hadn’t been in the Louvre, he would never have allowed it. Violette has a Chicken ­McNuggets Happy Meal. She thinks the chicken is fish. My spouse has a Royal Cheese, the French version of a Quarter Pounder with cheese, served with traditional mustard sauce. He only likes the mustard. As soon as we get home, Violette asks me to make her a sandwich. I tell her she has already had lunch, but she doesn’t see it that way. My husband says eating at ­McDonald’s is proof of his love for me.

I have mixed feelings about this diet. You do eat less, and you exercise more, which means you might be able to lose weight (so far I haven’t). And after the first few days, as my stomach shrank, I no longer suffered much from hunger or fatigue.

One thing I will probably stick with is snacking! I like being able to eat candy bars without feeling guilty.

I’ve also come to appreciate takeout. I went from spending a half hour making lunch for myself to 35 seconds! Much less stressful. On the other hand, not having to cook has made me so lazy that when we order pizza one night, I don’t even bother to make a salad as a side dish. Takeout is also far too expensive, and I need to eat more vegetables, so I will go back to cooking. Vive la cuisine française!

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First Published Mon, 2013-07-22 17:44

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