Inhaling Their Food

The real French Secret to Staying Slim

The New York Times | Op-Ed

By Jessica Seigel

In her best-selling diet book, ''French Women Don't Get Fat,'' Mireille Guiliano says that when she was an exchange student in the United States she gained 20 pounds from the American way of eating -- specifically from junk food. Even after returning home, she continued to gorge on pastries, but finally slimmed down by learning to eat with elan the feminine French way. Considering the strain in French-American relations these days, I thought it very gracious of her to share this story.

So I'll share mine. When I was a college student in France for a year, I also picked up a bad habit: a pack of cigarettes a day. That's what you do in Paris -- sit in cafes drinking coffee and smoking. I acquired a newly svelte figure not from chewing slowly through four-course dinners, supping on oysters, or setting out fine china at every meal -- among the sensuous eating pleasures from the land of Chanel that the author recommends. The regime francais I learned was cigarettes and it took me 15 years to quit. Merci beaucoup.

In the j'accuse department of bad habits, the French still smoke more, and in more places, than Americans. In fact, the Paris city council recently conceded the utter failure of its voluntary ban on smoking in restaurants and cafes. ''It was a disaster,'' says Sylviane Ratte, tobacco program director of France's cancer society. ''People just ignored it.''

So s'il vous plait shut up (even if the French do have a point about portion control and tying scarves).

According to major surveys from both nations, the percentage of French women who smoke is five points higher than the percentage of American women. Researchers have dismissed this difference as statistically insignificant. A stark gap emerges, however, if you compare elites from both countries. In America, where cigarettes now have a loser image, only about one-tenth of those with college and graduate degrees smoke, compared to about 40 percent of high-school dropouts. But in France, nearly a third of upper-income earners smoke, a slightly higher percentage than in the lower classes.

So those chic upper-crust French women trotting around not getting fat smoke far more than their American counterparts. Of course, kicking the habit is fattening -- quitters gain six to nine pounds on average. Not that I'm suggesting that America is so Rubenesque because we gave up smoking. (We're just big-boned!)

To be fair to the French -- not as if I should be -- they are smoking less than they used to. But it can't be just a coincidence that they're also worrying more about obesity. The point is, if sensuous eating works so well, why does the most beautiful woman in France smoke to stay slim? Catherine Deneuve quit a three-packs-a-day habit in the mid-1980's, then agonized about gaining weight. As a nonsmoker, she even felt positively un-French, worrying that if she'd lived in Existentialist days she would not have felt comfortable hanging out with Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, talking being and nothingness in hazy cafes. As she told a Washington Post reporter, ''A cigarette helps to think, you know?''

By the millennium, Ms. Deneuve was chain-smoking again, puffing through no-smoking zones from Australia to Canada. Still slim, still breathtaking, she unabashedly hails cigarettes as her beauty secret. She's unrepentant -- just like French cinema, which continues to film smoking as a plotline. In one recent high-profile puff-fest, ''Intimate Strangers,'' a mysterious woman dandles smoldering butts seductively while opening up to an imposter psychoanalyst.

Speaking of delusions, I don't need Frenchwomen promoting the ''art of self-deception,'' as Ms. Guiliano recommends, to tell me that the pleasures of butter are slimming, though actually, it is quite nice. But in the end, I do see areas for detente. If the French prohibit smoking in restaurants so we can visit without choking, maybe our eateries will start serving smaller portions with guilt-free creme fraiche. Now that would be a lovely cultural exchange.

Jessica Seigel teaches journalism at New York University and reports as the ''Countess of Culture'' for NPR's ''Day to Day'' program.