At first, I thought the hours of travel, heavy suitcase lifting, and subsequent jet lag were the culprits behind my changing appetite. After a few days, however, I was completely adjusted to the time difference between New York and France. And then a few weeks passed, and then months. Still, something had changed. Why wasn’t I hungry in between meals?
I consider myself a fairly healthy eater. I try to prepare balanced meals full of lean protein and lots of fruits and vegetables that, when possible, are sourced locally and organically. However, I don’t remember the last time I ate only 3 meals without wanting to scarf down a granola bar mid-morning or a tablespoon (or 3) of almond butter right around 3:30pm. Snacking was always part of my daily routine, and I never questioned it.
A quick Google search of the French diet yields over a million results, the majority of which describe the “French paradox” or, in other words, the combination of high-fat diets and low rates of heart disease that have confounded nutritionists and dieticians alike. There are also articles claiming that, at most, the French eat one snack a day, usually in late afternoon. They don’t keep energy bars in their desk drawers or graze after dinner.
But what I really wanted to know was why. Why, since arriving in France, have I waited for my stomach to grumble, for me to have a sudden and irresistible urge to dart to the nearest boulangerie and drown myself in macaroons, but it never has? I am not avoiding snacking because it is taboo. I am just not hungry and, for the life of me, could not figure out what could possibly be so different about French food compared to food in the United States that my insatiable cravings to snack have virtually disappeared. So I set out to find an answer for what I referred to as my “appetite enigma.”
My first step was to consult the experts. Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, HFS proposed the idea that, by distancing myself from the “restrictive American diet” and eating more calories and fats from food, I am physically more satisfied throughout the day, which I am inclined to agree with considering the fact that French meals are generally heavier than what I am used to.
However, she also suggested that it may not be the food at all – which certainly took me by surprise.
“I think it is much more likely to be changes in your life circumstances and mood,” explained Scritchfield. “If you’re happier, more energetic, less stressed, there is less of a need for food besides hunger.”
After hearing this, I took a step back and began to expand the scope of my research a bit until one day, I came across an article on mindfulness suggesting that the culprit behind the obesity epidemic may be an inability to eat mindfully.
An attitude of mindfulness while eating involves maintaining a constant awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It facilitates a sense of presence which often attacks the underlying causes of overeating (i.e. stress, emotional eating, etc).
“Without self-awareness, people eat without regards to the quality and quantity of food that passes their lips,” writes Samantha Olson. “But if people can take control of their mindless habits with ritualistic mindfulness, they may be able to improve their overall health. Practicing an eating meditation is one of the tricks to help get the mind focused on the present, instead of the past or future.”
I can’t tell you how many times I ate at my desk this summer during my internship. And when I was in college, I often brought food to the library or, I’m ashamed to admit, scarfed down a sandwich or a salad while walking from one class to the next. It wasn’t ideal, but there was only so much I could do in a day and I often didn’t have the luxury to sit and enjoy my food when the to-do list was a mile long. Inevitably, my stomach would begin to rumble a few hours later, begging me for a snack.
In France, however, sitting down at a table for a meal is not a luxury. Rather, it’s the norm. And eating on-the-go or in front of a computer? Well, that’s entirely unheard of.
Lunchtime at work here lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes. Upon learning about this, my initial thought was that it is entirely unnecessary and a waste of precious time during the day. After reading about mindfulness, however, I realized that the French may be on to something. By eating slower and at a table rather than at a desk or on foot, I can fully engage my senses to focus on the food in front of me, appreciate how it got from the farm to my table, respect and acknowledge the nutrients it’s carrying into my body, and really taste it.
My changing appetite probably isn’t caused solely by the food that I’m eating or solely by external factors, either. Rather, it may very well be a combination of the two. I eat three meals a day here, and I really, really enjoy them. By eating slower and more consciously, I have gained a heightened sense of awareness and, I would argue, a more positive relationship with and appreciation of the food I am eating which, in turn, means I need to snack less.
There are definitely still times when I’m not as mindful as I would like to be. But I certainly find myself eating more intentionally than I would be doing in America. I guess something about the French joie de vivre is rubbing off on me, which makes me think my “appetite enigma” isn’t so much of an enigma, after all.
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