The Sweets, The Fat And The Scale

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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!


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Eating well (healthy) in North America does require diligence, determination and, yes, reading skills. All those labels!
    And when I do eat out, I am frequently shocked at the huge size of the portions served.
    Sounds like you learned quickly and have managed to avoid the perils of our crazy “sweets & fat” society.
    .-= Beth´s last blog ..Photo Op =-.

  2. You forgot orange cheese.

    It’s darn near impossible to get a decent meal here unless you make it yourself. And by decent I mean healthy. I grew up with the 1950’s Betty Crocker version of cooking, with many recipes including a can of condensed soup. For me, cooking healthy isn’t an issue so much as trying to include some variety. I’m great at a plain old piece of lean chicken with salad or steamed veggies, but beyond that I don’t know what to do. Doesn’t help that I want to cook something simple and fairly quick. But it’s still better than the enormous variety of fast food places here.
    .-= Kirsten´s last blog ..On the Internet #3 =-.

  3. This is an interesting post. As an old guy (68) I can tell you that the age of fast high calorie food is relatively new. When I was a kid soda came in a returnable 6 ounce bottle and it cost 5 cents in a vending machine. Most restaurants offered “dinners” of meat, potato, a vegetable (usually green beans or corn), and a small lettuce salad. It was when I was a teenager in the late 1950s when you could drive your car (or your dad’s car) to a “drive-in” for a hamburgers and fries.

    PS. I replied to a couple of your comments in my blog.
    .-= Tulsa Gentleman´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday =-.

  4. Great post…had the same problem with the cheese in the Philippines 🙁

    But since one year I am almost a vegetarian… try to eat as much vegetables and fruits as I can eat… and honestly… I feel better…

  5. I love that food is available at all times in North America because I am hungry at all times. LOL Plus I need the extra fat sometimes since I’m underweight. What I miss most is just the sheer variety of different types of foods. French food is getting so boring because it’s always the same thing over and over again. I know it’s slightly better in larger cities, but where I live there aren’t even Italian restaurants. And we’re really close to Italy!

    I agree that it’s all about having self-control though. I don’t mind all the fatty foods everywhere in the US because I know I won’t eat everything and become extremely obese like most Americans. I do wish more people would learn how to eat healthily though. The obesity in America really bothers me because it’s just so unhealthy and yet no one seems to care.

  6. Food is always such an interesting topic!

    I agree with Jennie that I like having food available at all hours in the US. Sometimes you need to be able to get something to eat at 5. I’m also not into low fat sour cream and cheese and whatever – low fat = low taste. I just try to be moderate about the fatty things that I eat, and also the amount of sweets that I eat. Moderation is the key. Having said that, I could stand to be more moderate in my sweet consumption.

    I think a bigger problem is the amount of preservatives and salt in everything, like you said, even in something as simple as tomato sauce!

    I think that eating habits in France are changing. I notice that when I go on sorties with my schools the parents have usually bought the kids one of those prepackaged sandwiches from the grocery store and then they add either a couple of small bags of chips or one big bag of chips and some kind of candy bar. The kids are always bringing cookies and candy to eat for a snack at recreation, and not homemade cookies, packaged cookies. The number of prepackaged and frozen meals available keeps growing. These impressions may also be a function of where I lived. People in Picardie are larger than people in Paris.
    .-= Soleil´s last blog ..The Deal for This Year =-.

  7. @Beth – The size of portions is indeed a problem. because you get used to it… the notion of normal portions is totally distorted.

    @cathy – I think people are aware and I’m not saying everyone should slim down after all. But there is no wondering why people are bigger (not always fatter!).

    @Kirsten – Oh yeah, orange cheese! 😆

    I find the healthiest meals eating out in ethnic restaurants. Portions are usually more reasonable, and there are more veggies.

    I don’t eat much meat myself (maybe three times a month?!) and I’m used to cook a lot. Italian, Chinese, Mexican… I could give you some recipes if you like.

    @Tulsa Gentleman – This is really interesting. I wonder why suddenly everything got bigger… especially so suddenly, considering a few decades isn’t that long (in my European mind anyway!).

    There is nothing wrong with traditional North American food actually. Home made burgers can be quite healthy, and so on.

    @Sidney – Really? I feel less lonely!

    @Gabriel – 😆 I understand, trust me. Mind you, food in Argentina was also a bit of a challenge sometimes. Like a friend of mine observed, most people seemed to feast on steak and Italian food… and that’s it!

    @Gledwood – You are a guy, it doesn’t count 😉

    @Jennie – I noticed that as well, France isn’t big on ethnic food. I think the first Indian restaurant opened not long ago in my hometown…! And Chinese food is quite blend. Ethnic food is much more authentic in North America, and quite healthy too. Well, better than Denys anyway 😆

    I like food and I don’t restrain myself, but I do mix light meal/ heavier meals, fat food, healthy food etc.

    @Soleil – I understand your point, yet this has always puzzled me: why would one need to eat at 5am? 😆 I’m still too French to understand that.

    I can see food is changing in France too. I noticed a lot more franchises over the year. For example, Paul is everywhere in my hometown now, and even though the food is French blahblahblah, it’s still quite greasy and somehow “fast food”.

    French food is fatty too after all. But somehow, people seem to balance a bit better… I think.

    I don’t mind low-fat products because I find they taste the same most of the time actually.

  8. I came to the us when I was 7, and never did develop a taste for pb and j or macaroni and cheese. When I had sleepovers, my friends used to get a huge kick out of my mom offering them a croissant in the morning!

    I’ve recently discovered kale, collard beans, mustard greens, and chard. They are all great for salads and various side dishes, and super healthy. Not to mention they are all cheap!

    This is a great source for food info:
    .-= Seb´s last blog ..More Alphabetic Misadventures: P is for Persuasive =-.

  9. I grew up with processed food when I was a kid ’cause my parents were too busy to take care of us. Then I got fat. I also like to eat out when I’m at school…all kind of unhealthy delicious food. A French guy once told me food is very greasy in Canada…though I didn’t understand why he said that.

    I also enjoyed eating out once a while, it was a total indulgence.

    Now that I’m in Denmark I started to cook again…but I find it very tiresome ’cause it’s a headache to think for a new menu every night. Where we live doesn’t have much Asian food selections-2 Thai markets and a couple of Chinese restaurants.

    Now I’m getting hungry and tired…I really want the food choice convenience again. 🙁

  10. Live healthy, eat healthy, and don’t worry too much about your weight! Just lead a healthy life. 🙂

    Gosh, I haven’t checked myself in the scale for as long as I can remember! Haha.

  11. I had fun reading this one! Seriously though, I do agree that North American cooking can be a cardiologist’s nightmare. The other day, I suddenly got hungry mid-morning, even though I always have breakfast, so I went to the downstairs cafe in my university building to get a snack. I found a sausage, egg, and cheese wrap, and together with that, I got a diet soda. I paid for it, and only when I unwrapped the thing that I saw the calorie content. What the heck! Fat content was 153% of the recommended daily intake, sodium was 78%, and that small thing had 500-something calories in it. Whoa! I vowed not to pick that up again.
    .-= Linguist-in-Waiting´s last blog ..Prolific First Week =-.

  12. We have 24-hr food chains here, mostly run by local Indian Muslims, which we call “Mamak stalls”. Since I tend to sleep late everyday, sometimes we dine there like 3 or 4 in the morning! And there are 24-hr McDonald’s and KFC restaurants just a street across my university. All catered to the late night owls of the university!
    .-= kyh´s last blog ..Impressions of Putrajaya =-.

  13. @Seb – Thank you for the link! I love kale, used it on soups…

    I guess at 7 you already had French taste. And I would have love being your friend… croissants in the morning, wow! Did your mum found them easily or was she baking?

    @beaverboosh – That’s true too 😆

    @Bluefish – It is a headache sometimes to find something to eat. I found that I tend to eat/ cook always the same stuffs. I bought for recipes books last time I was in France and haven’t really used them yet! I should.

    @Scarlet – Not necessarily actually! Maybe for the first two months because you’d OD on cheese and pastries, but after that you will be back to your true self 😉

    @Baoru – Amen! These are words I like to hear.

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – That kind of thing happened to me so many times! You pick something up, thinking it’s relatively healthy (or at least the lesser of the two devils) only to find out the nutritional contents are awful.

    @Lizz – But I’m guessing food in Manilla is still less fatty than in Canada… right? Actually, come to think of it, I’m really not familiar with the food there – you should write a post about it!

    @kyh – Ah, university… this is a time of eating/ sleeping at odd hours 😆

  14. Hi Zhu :D!

    Don’t even speak to me about scales…I don’t weigh myself for a year now (as long as I look good, that’s all that matters lol).

    “Then, I realized it wasn’t kilos but pounds.” – LOL LOL LOL LOL you kill me!

    I remember when I lived in France, and went to the supermarket, I used to think “oh my God, there’s not peanut butter here! Oh my God, there’s only St Michel butter and Hu cookies: what am I supposed to do?” LOL LOL…but then the cheese section healed everything lol.

    “People say that French women don’t get fat: I beg to differ. I was French and I got fat.” – ROFL ROFL ROFL…but do you know why they say that? Because the world believes that French women are always having sex (thus not getting fat, capisci?)…

    Ok, now I know why my mom cooked a lot when we lived in Canada: the food there is terribly caloric!! I left Canada when I was 6 years old, but now (after reading your post) I am scared to go back LOL…joking!

    Girl, cook away! By the way: have you tried doing the “Pão de Queijo” already?

    Have a great week ahead, Zhu :D!

    .-= Max Coutinho´s last blog ..Musical Video: "Depois de ter você" by Maria Bethânia & Adriana Calcanhoto =-.

  15. I can totally relate to your eagerness to try everything that’s new in the supermarket. I’m doing that right now in Belgium! Eating healthy in North America is definitely tricky in my opinion, but I think it comes down to eating fresh and controlling portion sizes. French people eat lots of fat and salt – when I lived in Paris is was always butter, cream sauce, croissant, etc. But they control their portions and don’t eat a lot of crap. Though I think that’s changing a bit…

    Anyways, whole foods in the U.S. helps keep me eating healthily, even if it’s rough on my bank account.
    .-= Tanya´s last blog ..The Best Frites in Brussels =-.

  16. @Max Coutinho – Ah, the Lu cookies from Nantes… I actually spent all my summers as a kid at St Michel, where are produced the galettes set Michel, about an hour from my hometown 😉

    As for the scale… I’m like you, as long as my clothes fit, I’m fine! 😆

    @Tanya – Have you found any new food in Belgium? Just curious!

    French don’t eat much healthier actually, considering the butter etc. yet, less processed food I guess… and smaller portions, more exercise etc. I agree with you, French people’s diet is changing – I noticed it too over the years.

    No country is totally healthy anyway… I mean, China has a lot of oily food, and Latin America’s diet is based on beans, rice and chicken 😆

  17. Hi Zhu,

    Very funny to hear your stories. You can understand when I was telling my friend in India that I made a chart of all food I eat and calories because suddenly I find it hard to fit in my regular pants… he thought I have become ‘American’. LOL but its true!! Also, junk food is heavily subsidised here, for example a bag of chips and coke costs half of three oranges and a box of tofu. I have now ‘opened my eyes’ really while shopping (it took me 2 years to understand that), and I’ve learnt to avoid junk food although the deals are unbelievable!

    Oh no, you don’t eat snails or elaborate cooking? Damn it. Oh I know 4 kinds of cheese – yellow, white, american and mixed… 😛
    .-= Final_Transit´s last blog ..Small town boys =-.

  18. When I was a child in the U.K., food was three meals a day, meat, vegetables, no fizzy drinks and no snacks.
    Then I discovered Indian and Dhinese food at university….and became interested in what I was eating, so went back to the British basics and started to cook and enjoy them.
    Going to France was odd…lots of home cooking with beans as the filler, cafes which were worse than the U.K. had ever been…in my experience…and no ethnic food. This is, to be fair, out in the wilds. Then I met the ladies who cook, and that started me off again. None of these ladies had ever been slim…they were built for work!
    In the last few years, the supermarket trolleys are full of convenience food and biscuits and the McDonalds’ franchises just keep multiplying.

    With you on the cheese, though.
    .-= fly in the web´s last blog ..Strip the willow in the cheese queue. =-.

  19. 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 😆

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