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French and American Eating Habits Affect Weight Gain
Americans gauge their eating by external cues, but the French listen to their bellies

02/14/2008 by Craig Weatherby

One of the great mysteries of nutrition science has been the "French Paradox.”

That is, the French enjoy low rates of heart disease even though their diets contain fairly large proportions of saturated fat from meats and cheese.

Saturated fat tends to raise cholesterol levels, but as we discussed last issue, the idea that cholesterol causes cardiovascular disease is a gross oversimplification that's well on its way to obsolescence (See "Cholesterol Fiasco Undermines Accepted Theory”).

Another reason for the French Paradox could be their love of vegetables and red wine, which are rich in antioxidants that seem to enhance artery health.

And in addition to food choices, it could be that the French paradox has a great deal to do with lower calorie intake.

Simply put, the French eat less than Americans do, although that is changing fast: McDonald's and Burger King are now found in towns and cities across France, and family meals are being replaced by prepared supermarket dinners.

A 2006 study found that one in three French people were overweight, and that 6 million out of 63 million were obese… 2.3 million more than were obese just nine years ago.

But the French still eat less than Americans do, and the results of a new study affirm some earlier indications as to why that is.

Small portions and slow eating reduce obesity risk

Last year, we summarized the results of investigations into how eating habits influence calorie intake and weight (See "Slow Eating May Prevent Weight Gain”).

Researchers from Cornell University found that French people at more slowly, and that French restaurants serve smaller portions, probably in line with customer's expectations based on their behavior at home.

As they wrote, "Ironically, although the French eat less than Americans, they seem to eat for a longer period of time, and hence have more food experience [enjoyment]. The French can have their cake and eat it as well.”

And Japanese researchers found that faster eaters tend to be fatter than those who savor food more slowly.

Another French secret: Stop eating when you're feeling full

Today we're focused on another Cornell study, which asked 133 Parisians and 145 Chicagoans how they decide when to stop eating (Wansink B et al. 2007).

It turns out that the Parisians use internal cuesthat is, they no longer feel hungryto decide when to stop eating.

More so than the French, the Americans reported that they tend to use external cuessuch as whether they'd eaten what they thought others thought was normal, when everyone was finished, when they ran out of a beverage, when it was getting late, when their TV show was over, or when they were through with what they were reading.

And they found that the heavier a French or American person is, the more they rely on external cues to tell them to stop eating and the less they rely on whether they feel full.

This study confirms the findings of a previous one by the same team, in which 150 French and 152 American college students were given a questionnaire that measured the influence of external and internal cues of meal cessation (Wansink B et al. 2006).

As in the new study, the Americans were influenced more by external cues than internal cues.

Then as now the authors came to the same conclusion: "…Americans may be particularly vulnerable to ‘mindless eating,' which could lead to obesity.... The French may be a model for ‘mindful eating,' which may lead to a more healthful relationship with food.”

Don't clear that table!

The Cornell team published the amusing results of a similar eating cues study one year ago this month (Wansink B, Payne CR 2007).

The setting was an all-you-can eat chicken wing buffet in a sports bar, where they brought 50 graduate students (34 women and 16 men) to test whether people would eat less if they knew how much they had already eaten.

The students were randomly assigned to tables that were bussed (wing bones cleared immediately) or not (bones left on the table).

The students at the bussed tables ate more than those seated at the unbussed tables (7 wings vs. 5.5 wings), with the effect being stronger for men than women.

As the authors wrote, "In distracting eating environments, environmental cues may provide an effective means of reducing consumption. Implications for controlling alcohol intake were also noted.”

The lesson seems clear… let those bones (or crab legs or shrimp shells) pile up, and stop when you begin to feel full!


  • Wansink B, Payne CR, Chandon P, Rozin P. Internal and External Cues: French and American explanations for mindless eating. FASEB J. 2006 20:A175-A176.
  • Wansink B, Payne CR, Chandon P.Internal and external cues of meal cessation: the French paradox redux? Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007 Dec;15(12):2920-4.
  • Wansink B, Payne CR. Counting bones: environmental cues that decrease food intake. Percept Mot Skills. 2007 Feb;104(1):273-6.