Living the paradox

How do the French eat all that cheese and still lose weight? I had to find out.

Published February 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The French, save Girard Depardieu, are a thin people. As an envious American, I marvel at the touted paradox: How can they eat absurd amounts of saturated fats, avoid heart disease and look like a population of balloon heads on string bodies? Red wine, apparently, has a salubrious effect, but flavonoids will only get you so close to a 27-inch waist.

I longed for an emaciated, untoned, sallow Frenchified shell, so I
decided to adjust my diet. For a one-week trial period, I'd consume nothing but cheese, fruit, red wine, black coffee, Evian and cigarettes. My operating principles were borrowed -- a little Zone (equal parts fat, protein and good carbs; no baguettes or brioche for moi) and a little anorexic (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine) -- but still fresh and elegante. If you want to live to be 120, eat yogurt; if you want to weigh 120, eat cheese.

Day 1

Brie, St. Andres, chevre, Montrachet, Merlot, French roast, grapefruit, peach, banana, apples, blueberries. I took a vigorous walk for exercise, covering the five blocks from my office in Times Square to the Hudson News at Grand Central. I bought a pack of Gauloise and chain-smoked on the way back, effectively undoing five years as a nonsmoker in 15 minutes. I felt unhealthy yet speedy -- very French.

Day 2

A fruit-heavy day (too much cheese can lead to gastric distress). I took a co-worker's bichon frisi for a stroll during lunch. I had to carry Choo-Choo in my tote after a while (good upper body workout). I ran into a salon for a French manicure. They asked me to take the dog outside. The nerve! Are we not all animals?

Day 3

I've dared to leave the homeland -- edam, gouda, mozzarella, feta. For lunch, I ate the meat of an entire watermelon. The deprivation is showing: I've become snappish and surly, especially when tourists ask for directions. I feel strangely liberated re: body hair removal. Tonight, while smoking on the fire escape, my husband complained about my return to cigarettes. Enraged, I went
inside, threw a glass of wine in his face and then we made mad, passionate love all night long.

Day 4

Eating out can test any regimen. Saturday night, I couldn't convince my husband and friend to do fondue. Unhinged by two glasses of Bordeaux, I hastily expanded my definition of cheese to include veal piccata with spaghetti on the side. I felt terribly guilty as I licked the plate, and excused myself to smoke furiously at the bar. Our dining companion, an old friend, was concerned. She pulled up a stool and asked, "Are you OK?" I sighed, "Yes, it goes." She told me she was worried, that I looked a bit pale and drawn. The diet must be working.

Day 5

My jeans were roomier, no question. I bravely stepped on the scale -- five pounds lighter! To celebrate, I drank an entire bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and watched a highlight video of the 1998 World Cup. It dawned on me that capitalism was all wrong, so I told my husband I was planning to organize the staff at work. He said, "You're drunk." I said, "If you didn't look like Phillipe Candeloro, I'd divorce you," and we began to make mad, passionate love. Then he pulled back and asked, "How long has it been since you've showered?"

Day 6

For lunch, I melted three ounces of cheddar and drizzled it on slices of green apple; it looked lovely. Presentation est tout: You eat with ze eye, you know. My skin has taken on a yellowish sheen from smoking (not good), but the tar taste in my mouth makes a big plate of anything seem unappetizing (good). I took a long walk from Chanel on 57th Street to Agnis B. in Soho. I tried on
many outfits, and found nothing wrong with spending $75 on a T-shirt. My husband did. I considered taking a lover.

Day seven

For breakfast, I expanded my definition of fruit to include a Belgian waffle with boysenberry syrup and whipped cream. My husband clucked while I ate. I screamed, "I hate you, I love you, I hate you, I love you." I weighed myself after dehydrating with five cups of coffee. Despite my errant cheating, I'd lost a grande totale of seven pounds (not sure of the metric equivalent). If I could go for another week ... mais non. The French Diet was good for ze form, bad for ze romance. At the end of the day, fat and
happy is the American way.

By Valerie Frankel

Valerie Frankel is a writer in New York. She is managing editor of

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France Health Wine