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The 'French Women' connection

What we can learn from an unlikely hit diet book

The Freedom Fries era is finally over.

Those boycott threats and nasty jokes against the French have mostly receded. George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac recently shared plates of lobster risotto and praised their "warm relations."

Nothing could be a bigger sign of a thaw, however, than the stellar success of Mireille Guiliano's diet-book-cum-treatise, "French Women Don't Get Fat."

Currently No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list and No. 30 on Amazon, "French Women" has become an undeniable hit.  Guiliano is even scheduled for an "Oprah" turn.

That hers appears to be the next great American fad diet is ironic at the very least. Guiliano has no love for diet books. She notes that most French women refuse (at least publicly) to even acknowledge the concept of a diet. Yet they're in far better shape than Americans.

The numbers, certainly, bear out her observations: While 35 percent of French women are overweight and 11 percent are obese, 62 percent of American women are overweight and 34 percent obese.

Forget the paradoxEveryone seems to have a theory on why this might be the case — from murmurs of a cultural fondness for eating disorders to a national smoking habit. And don't forget the well-worn French paradox: a puzzling belief that the French mysteriously defy our metabolic fate despite gorging themselves on tarte tatin and triple-crème cheese. (Here's the most recent incarnation.)

The eating-disorders theory may have a shred of credence, but no one thing can fully explain away the discrepancy. Smoking? Twenty-one percent of French women smoke, compared to 17 percent of American women, hardly a huge difference.

Guiliano herself dismisses any paradox. She believes the French have as many weight problems as anyone else.  But inhabitants of the land of foie gras and béchamel seem to fare better because they've learned — through childhood lectures or self-discipline — to value quality over volume.

Meantime, we diet-obsessed Americans remain fat. This, Guiliano posits, is proof that a $40 billion diet industry and libraries full of diet books are simply "unsustainable extremism" — a desperate hop from one fad diet to another, to no avail.

Basically, the latest fad diet book is a treatise on why fad diets suck. What gives?

Guiliano, the CEO of Champagne firm Veuve Clicquot's U.S. subsidiary, has no one-trick solutions, just her own story about pudging up and trimming back down, paired with basic advice on how to stop see-sawing our bathroom scales.

Her approach is completely unremarkable, aside from some effusive praise for homemade yogurt and a "magical leek soup," harnessed for its diuretic powers, that I'd frankly take a pass on. (And I like leeks.)

Like so many other diet gurus, she offers herself as proof and passes along all the little tidbits of wisdom given her by one "Dr. Miracle" (groan!) who trimmed her back to Gallic svelteness after a very fattening exchange year in Massachusetts and a nasty pastry habit during her Paris college days.

The core of her advice: We need to acknowledge that controlling what we stuff in our mouths is an ongoing attempt to master self-deceit. Eating well, in other words, is an endless series of tiny dodges and compromises we negotiate with ourselves. "Fool yourself," she says.

This is so obvious that it's nearly revolutionary.

As proof that moderation works, she offers her many years of maintaining a trim, now 50-something figure while dining constantly (the woman does sell Champagne for a living, after all).

Biology always winsGuiliano asks that we consume small portions, savor our food and learn to manage our cravings rather than deny them. She argues that the French view proper diet as a lifelong relationship with food, rather than battle that can be won.

This is her most savvy advice. Diets fail because diets are temporary. Yes, I know Atkins and South Beach have maintenance phases meant for all eternity. Good luck with that.  Healthy, balanced eating is an intellectual exercise. If you think of diets as no-frills endurance tests until your next Skittles binge, you'll be miserable. Biology always beats out gimmicks.

Guiliano is also rightly appalled with Americans' fondness for enormous portions of one single dish, rather than many small tastes. She wants food to be a reward for all our senses, not a placebo to divert us from everyday miseries.

What I worry about is whether her devotees can follow through on the details.  She spurns supermarkets in favor of local outdoor markets — a heartening message, if a risky one in the land of Wal-Mart. She believes Americans have made a travesty of herbs and seasonings. (Let's not even talk about mustard.) Mushrooms get the sort of praise you'd expect from a Phish fan. Oysters are recommended not for aphrodisiac powers but because a half-dozen contain fewer than 75 calories. Soup gets a nod for its water content.

Needless to say, she considers wine essential to savoring a meal — though she shuns hard liquor as empty, taste-dulling calories. "Maybe it's the key to how some restaurants survive serving mediocre food," she suggests.

And exercise?  Guiliano scoffs at fitness clubs, instead suggesting that we try radical French notions like walking and taking the stairs. (Even the U.S. government seems to have figured this part out.)

Age of moderation?She has been taken to task for portraying the French as uniformly healthy and trim. Even they acknowledge they're tubbing up — though in part that's because more of them are eating like Americans. After all, most didn't exactly wage war as McDonald's spread its reach from Calais to Perpignan.

Until Guiliano appeared on the scene,  I had my money on another middle-path book, Barbara Rolls' "The Volumetric Eating Plan," to be the next big diet hit. (Rolls' approach has many similarities to Guiliano's, especially the soup part.) Both books make me believe that maybe, just maybe, an Age of Moderation is nigh.

You can quibble with Guiliano's little self-deceptions as disingenuous or cruel.  And you can hate that the messenger is a bubbly-sipping Frenchie.

But you can't deny her book's success. We may have to accept that the French can teach us something after all.

Jon Bonné is's lifestyle editor. He was born and raised in New York, where everyone walks.