How I Ate Pastries Every Day on a Trip to France and Didn’t Gain Any Weight
If you’re at all concerned about watching your weight, traveling is typically a danger zone: You eat out for every meal, you might not have great access to fruits and vegetables and, oftentimes, you aren’t able to keep up with your normal exercise routine. So when I found out I was going to be in France for nine days this summer with my family, of course I was thrilled, but at the the same time, alarm bells started going off in my head. I’m very health-conscious but, at the same time, enjoying food is so important to me. I face this to-indulge-or-not-to-indulge dilemma enough at home in Philly, so I wondered, How would I ever be able to truly enjoy the famously decadent French cuisine without packing on pounds?
But I am pleased to report, I managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible: I ate my fill of indulgent French food — in fact, I was on a first-name basis with the cashier at the patisserie near my hotel by the end of the trip — and did not gain a single pound. Not one!
Before I left, I reached out to two Philly dietitians to help me navigate the unknown territory of “indulging responsibly” when on vacation. Deanna Segrave-Daly, RD, gave me some great tips on staying healthy while traveling anywhere, while Emma Fogt, MBA, MS, RD, offered me some tidbits that were a little more France-specific. Here are the top five tips these lovely nutrition experts told me to use and how I incorporated their advice to avoid packing on pounds during vacation without forgoing croissants, soufflés, wine, brioche, cheese, crèpes, and éclairs. Seriously.
1. Pack travel snacks and a water bottle.
“If you are traveling for hours without access to decent food choices, like when you’re on a plane, you don’t want to let yourself get too hungry between meals,” Segrave-Daly told me. To snack at the airport and on the plane, I brought some strawberries and sliced red pepper, which definitely helped me steer clear of airport junk food. I also knew that whatever meal was served on the plane would be icky and probably not that healthy, so I bought a salad in the airport to eat on the plane. I also always made sure to drink water, on the plane and consistently throughout the entire trip. I noticed, sipping water between bites helped me to feel full sooner, so I could resist polishing off a whole dessert on my own.
2. Don’t have a restrictive mindset.
Both Segrave-Daly and Fogt emphasized that being too restrictive on vacation is unnecessary and doing so would make me feel deprived, which is of course what I was worried about in the first place. There were certainly a lot of French specialties I went in to the trip wanting to try. Following their advice, I decided to adopt the motto “Taste everything” (as opposed to devour everything). I crossed off most of the items on my must-try list by the end of the trip, even escargot (which was delicious, by the way). The trick was to not go overboard when something was really yummy.
I had a special bread or pastry for breakfast most days, and ate dessert after dinner several days as well, but always shared between at least three people, which Deanna recommended. Luckily, a lot of the pastry shops also made miniature versions of their treats —mini pain au chocolat, mini brioche rolls, mini tarts, mini macarons — so I could taste even more! My brother, who is usually much more self-indulgent than I am when it comes to food, even said he admired my dedication to trying sweets. I shared appetizers and entrees, too, so I could taste more dishes without overeating. When I tried the classic French onion soup heaped with bread and melted gruyere cheese, I made that my meal. As for wine, I had a glass with my meal some nights, but often skipped it to save room for dessert, simply because, as you might have gathered, dessert is more worth the calories to me.
3. It’s okay to indulge, but make sure to eat nutritious foods, too.
Let’s face it, if all I had eaten all day was pastries and white bread and cheese, not only would I have probably gained weight, but I also wouldn’t have felt great. So, I prioritized eating fruits and vegetables every day. To start, I always had fruit with my breakfast. Fogt also told me that the salads in France are wonderfully fresh, and right she was. My go-to healthy lunch was a Nicoise Salad, which traditionally has green beans, sliced potato, olives, tomato, hard-boiled egg, and tuna over greens. I was happy to discover that the French make delicious vinaigrettes, and dress salads very lightly so I never had to worry about dressing adding too many calories to my meal. I don’t eat meat, so my dinners usually centered on fish, which is generally a lean source of protein and healthy fats. So, to be clear, my diet did not consist of just cheese, cheese, and more cheese followed by a croissant.
4. Don’t forget to get your sweat on.
“If your trip is less active and more relaxing, plan some exercise into your week — at least every other day,” said Segrave-Daly. I knew that I had to exercise on the trip to stay healthy, feel better, and burn off some of those extra pastry calories I was eating, but I was concerned about where to do it. Our hotel in Paris, which is where we spent most of the trip, didn’t have a gym, and I was worried about running around a city I was unfamiliar with. To solve this conundrum, I brought some intense 30-minute workout DVDs with me that I could play on my laptop right in my hotel room, so I had no excuses — I worked out almost every day of the trip. There are also plenty of no-equipment workouts around the web that are designed to be done while traveling that I could have used, like this Be Well Workout of the Week from earlier this summer.
5. When you’re on vacation, eat like the French.
The French diet is high in bread, butter, eggs, meat, and wine, yet somehow they manage to stay slimmer than us in the U.S. Fogt had some insights about why this paradox exists, one being a difference in food quality. Referring to chocolate croissants, she said, “They don’t make them here like they do in France!” When you use the very best quality ingredients to make breads and pâtés and quiches from scratch, smaller portions of decadent food can be much more satisfying. When my family and I shared a single order of homemade crème brûlée, it was so rich and delicious that I was okay putting the spoon down after a few bites (notice I said okay, not overjoyed).
As Fogt explained, though, it’s not just about what the French eat but how the French eat, which is much more slowly and mindfully than the way we typically eat here. This was probably the hardest part for me, but I worked hard to savor every bite and pay attention enough to stop eating before I was too full (which we could all probably do more whenever we eat out). For instance, ordinarily I would be tempted to attack the bread basket that was served at every restaurant, but I limited myself to one slice of baguette per meal because that was all I really wanted. If I was satisfied with half the portion of fish, I left the rest of it on the plate. My biggest victory, though, happened when we ate at this one crèpe chain for lunch. These crèpes were stuffed with indulgent fillings like chocolate and goat cheese, but they were also greasy and mediocre, and I knew they weren’t worth the calories. It was hard to resist finishing the big portion because it was right in front of me — and, don’t get me wrong, it tasted delicious in a junk food kind of way — but I pushed away my plate and didn’t regret it.
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