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The Sweets, The Fat And The Scale

Yummy Cake

Yummy Cake

The first time I weighed myself in Canada, I almost had a heart attack.

The scale in the cor­ner of the kitchen was taunt­ing me, and one morn­ing, I finally climbed on it. I was just curi­ous, I guess. Barely awake, my eyes still out-of-focus, I blinked sev­eral times, try­ing to bring the scale’s nee­dle into focus. And I gasped.

Then, I real­ized it wasn’t kilos but pounds.

My heart started beat­ing nor­mally again.

It took me a long time to get used to the impe­r­ial sys­tem, but it took me even longer to learn how to eat in North America.

When I first came to Canada, we had just fin­ished a long trip in Latin Amer­ica. We were both pretty thin and fit thanks to daily plates of “arroz, pollo y fri­joles” and a very tight bud­get. But once back to civ­i­liza­tion, we were hun­gry for some­thing dif­fer­ent. North Amer­i­can style food was new to me and I was eager to explore the local culi­nary spe­cial­ties. I tried all the fast-food chains I could find: after all, France only has MacDonald’s and Quick.

I learned that pizza slices were sold with a side of fries, that the per­fect addi­tion to an oth­er­wise fairly healthy sub sand­wich was either a bag of Dori­tos or two cook­ies. Appe­tiz­ers were the size of three nor­mal French plates and the food was very greasy. But hey, after all, what’s the harm once in a while?

We cooked a lot too. We could afford fast-foods joints once in a while, but we were broke. Trips to the super­mar­kets were very inter­est­ing as well: so many prod­ucts were new to me! I couldn’t believe I had spent over 20 years with­out mac­a­roni and cheese, peanut but­ter and jelly, hot dog, onion rings…!

This period of dis­cov­ery was fol­lowed by a period of intense home­sick­ness. I missed cheese for exam­ple, real cheese. The first time I had been to Sub­way, the guy behind the counter asked me which kind of cheese I wanted on my sand­wich. I was already drool­ing in expec­ta­tion, and asked in return which kind of cheese they had, speak­ing with the voice of an expert. He rolled his eyes and pointed at a few the square slices: “er… white, yel­low and we are out of Amer­i­can”. White…? Yel­low…? What kind of cheese was that? No need to worry though, since they all tasted the same (plas­tic rub­bery taste), I usu­ally don’t care which kind is put in my sand­wich now and just say “reg­u­lar cheese” like most cus­tomers… what­ever that is.

When they think of French cui­sine, most North Amer­i­cans think of extremely elab­o­rate dishes or just plain stereo­typ­i­cal ones, such as snails (which I have never had by the way). I didn’t miss that. I miss the sim­ple prod­ucts, such as fresh bread, thin crust piz­zas, quiches, pâté, fancy yogurts and pas­tries. But I quickly learned that they were no equiv­a­lent and that I’d bet­ter dis­cover new local spe­cial­ties. After all, why spend a lot of money in a jar of Nutella when you can have some local maple syrup?

But I still wasn’t done with my culi­nary cul­ture shock.

Peo­ple say that French women don’t get fat: I beg to dif­fer. I was French and I got fat.

The thing is, in France, I never really cared about what I ate. Like most women, I fol­lowed the common-sense diet. Eat a crois­sant once in a while, just not with the above jar of Nutella. Have some cheese but not a fon­due every night. Pasta dishes are fine as long as they are home­made. A sand­wich is a great lunch, just go easy on the but­ter. And the list goes on.

But this didn’t work in Canada. It took me a while to real­ize that any­thing fat was not just fat, but ultra-fat. There were no sim­ple French but­ter crois­sant, but super-sized pas­tries filled with choco­late, dipped in cin­na­mon and topped with cream. Any sand­wich had tons of may­on­naise in it, not just but­ter. Fries or chips had to be dipped in three kind of sauces — hell, even pizza crust was sup­posed to be dipped in gar­lic sauce!

I started doing some­thing that I have never done in France before: read­ing the labels. When I dis­cov­ered that a can of soup could be half of my daily calo­ries intake, I got really pissed off. Was there any­thing healthy to eat here? I wasn’t buy­ing much processed food (such as microwave din­ers) because I wasn’t use to them and it still wasn’t good enough. Was I con­demned to make every meal from scratch?

Over time, I devel­oped some tech­niques. I sys­tem­at­i­cally buy the “low-fat” ver­sion of a prod­uct (such a cream cheese, bacon, yogurt etc.): I can’t tell the dif­fer­ence any­way. I read the labels more care­fully: some toma­toes sauces for instance pack an insane amount of preser­v­a­tives and impossible-to-pronounce ingre­di­ents for what it is, i.e. just toma­toes sauce. My cook­ing skills also got bet­ter and learned to make meals I loved.

I kept on eat­ing out once in a while but I made sure I did it because I felt like it, not because I was starv­ing and wanted to eat some­thing right away. This is a big prob­lem in North Amer­ica: food is every­where and avail­able at all time, it’s very easy to eat just because you are bored. The amount of crap food peo­ple eat is scary and it’s very easy to get dragged into think­ing that chicken wings with pizza and beer is a bal­anced meal. We lost touch of real­ity… completely.

Junk food is also a busi­ness. You think they get a good deal at all-you-can-eat restau­rants, when they get a buy-one-get-one-free burger, when the orders are super­sized. The truth is, eat­ing well is harder and more expen­sive. Plus, junk food is not always where you expect: most peo­ple would right­fully blame McDon­alds or KFC for the extra weight gain but wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily think their super-sized fancy cof­fee with whipped cream on top is part of the equation.

As I under­stood what makes us fat and how to eat health­ier meal, I nat­u­rally lost weight. Seri­ously, that eas­ily. I also lost the guilt asso­ci­ated with food that I had some­how picked up in Canada. It took me a while but I think I got it now.

Now, if you’ll excuse me… gotta go cook!


  1. When I moved to France I put on 10kgs! I couldn’t believe the large lunches (3 courses for €2.80 at uni), the thick but­ter in the sand­wiches and creamy may­on­naise… oh and of course the pain au choco­lat. Every­thing I learnt about healthy eat­ing, i.e. no but­ter, low fat sauces, diet and low-fat sub­sti­tutes went out the win­dow. In France you eat every­thing with full fat and with plea­sure. Not to men­tion find­ing it so dif­fi­cult to find really brown rye bread. Plus in NZ it was nor­mal for girls to exer­cise (here if the girls go to the gym once a week its great) — I’d go to the gym 5–6 days a week, in France I found it dif­fi­cult to find a gym to cater to my needs. Girls are meant to do aer­o­bics classes or any type of group exer­cise classes… that is not for me!

    2.5 years on I’ve lost about 12 kgs thanks to get­ting used to the French food, I think my body has devel­oped a way to metabolise French food and I enjoy it. Also I run 4–5 days per week at night when no one can see me ;) and I just have to ignore the snide com­ments from peo­ple on the street. By run­ning I can enjoy lots of cheese, creamy may­on­naise in my baguette and not put on weight. I spent 2 months in the UK over the sum­mer and I was so sick of ched­dar cheese!! I’m going to miss st.nectaire, can­tal and comté!
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..Noël =-.

    • I can totally see why North Amer­i­cans would gain weight in France. I mean, good food (vien­nois­eries, fro­mage…) is cheaper and food is a huge part of life over there. yet, for some rea­son, I don’t gain weight when I go to France. Must be a metab­o­lism thing. And my friends are all skinny, despite eat­ing Nutella tartines!

      French don’t go to the gym. The first time I went to the gym was in Canada, and I hated it. I’m not an out­door sport kind of per­son, although I like yoga. That said, you do walk a lot in France, which could explain why peo­ple aren’t fat.

      French don’t under­stand run­ning. If you run, they expect to see the police after you :lol:

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