7 Secrets to Eating Well in France

Les Vins Gourmands in Lille, France Anne Ackermann
France is famously obsessed with food, but obsessed with health food? Not exactly. Between the buttery pastries, the heavy sauces, and the sinful desserts, the country is one big diet-busting temptation. What's a health-conscious traveler to do?

"While travel generally does—and should—include a great deal of eating and indulging, it often also entails—or should—additional walking, moving, and exploring," says registered dietician Lauren Antonucci, owner and director of Nutrition Energy NYC (www.nutritionenergy.com). The idea is to even out the two, she says. Antonucci often helps clients prepare for trips by educating them about the foods they'll find abroad and teaching them how to make smart nutritional choices.  "I want them to enjoy both their vacation and the way they feel when they return home from vacation," she says.

Here are Antonucci's top tips on how to eat well—without feeling like you're sacrificing—in France.

Photo: Les Vins Gourmands in Lille, France
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Pain de seigle, French bread made with rye flour. Marionlon
The baguette may be the iconic food of France, and you should definitely try some in its mother country. But it's not exactly a star in the nutrition department. Antonucci recommends expanding your taste for French breads in the form of a pain complet, which is a whole-wheat bread, or a pain de seigle (pictured), which is made with rye flour. Don't worry—they're French, too, so they're delicious.


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Fresh croissants for sale in the Burgundy region of France. Georgios Makkas
Sure you could try to avoid these altogether, but that would be the culinary equivalent of skipping the Eiffel Tower. Luckily, there are ways to indulge wisely.

When it comes to breakfast options, Antonucci suggests opting for a croissant (pictured, in Burgundy). "A typical French croissant ordinaire or croissant au beurre (yes, it's made with pure butter) has about 200 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrates, and is much smaller—and dare I say, tastier—than the American versions of the true French treat," she says.

Sweet pastries are a bit trickier. The ever-popular chocolate éclair will set you back about 260 calories and 16 grams of fat. Antonucci suggests enjoying this custard-filled, chocolate-topped delicacy at only the best pastry shop in town—not every time you step into a patisserie.

When it comes to other items in the pastry case, such as mille-feuille, brioche, or Palmier cookies, share them with a friend. That way, you'll get the full taste, but only half the calories and carbs. An even savvier option is Madeleine butter cookies. They're smaller than most other pastries and only ring in at about 80 calories each—just make sure you limit yourself to one!


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France produces more than 400 kinds of cheeses. Markel Redondo
Visit France and not eat cheese? Sacrilege! Not only would you be missing out on one of the most important aspects of French cuisine, but you'd also likely offend an entire country where cheese is practically considered a major food group. Fortunately, there are some guilt-free ways to indulge.

Harder cheeses generally contain more fat than softer cheeses, so choose softer cheeses more often, suggests Antonucci. She also recommends opting for stronger-flavored cheeses, like Blue, Comte, or Camembert. The intense flavor will mean you'll eat less of it than you would a milder cheese. And remember: Cheese does have some redeeming qualities.
"One ounce of cheese generally contains about 100 calories (75 for 1 ounce of soft goat cheese) and 8 or 9 grams of fat (6 grams for soft goat cheese), but also 8 grams of protein and 200–300 mg of calcium," Antonucci says.
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Ratatouille, a traditional French vegetable stew. Snowy******
Sauces are the backbone of French cuisine—and one of the great joys of dining in France. But they can also sneak loads of calories and fat into your meal. The remedy? Stick to wine-based or stock-based sauces. Can't help but prefer tomato-based sauces? Go ahead, as long as the sauce is bright red—not pink, which is a surefire sign that there's cream in there, too.

What should you avoid? "Veloute, meaning velvety, starts off as a stock, but then equal parts butter and flour are added to make a roux, making this one of the higher-fat, higher-calorie sauces," says Antonucci. Béchamel also falls on the sinful end of the spectrum. "These are thickened light cream sauces, and are therefore higher in total fat and calories—more of a splurge sauce, so choose it less often," Antonucci suggests. 

Photo: Ratatouille, a traditional French vegetable dish
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French pastries and fruit tarts for sale in Lille, France. Anne Ackermann
Skip dessert in France? Sure, if you want to deprive yourself of one of the country's greatest joys. Go ahead and indulge, but if you're trying to stay on the healthy side of things, you'll want to keep a few things in mind when you order.  As with sauces, it's the cream-based options that will set you back. A ½-cup serving of crème brûlée has a whopping 425 calories and 36 grams of fat. The same size serving of a chocolate pot de crème isn't much better, at 371 calories and 26 grams of fat.

You're better off going for a fruit tart (310 calories, 15 grams of fat per 3-ounce slice) or—surprisingly—a chocolate soufflé (331 calories, 15 grams of fat per 10-ounce ramekin). Better yet, opt for a bowl of sorbet. A ½-cup serving has only about 130 calories and, mercifully, no fat.

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A glass of champagne is included in the ticket price at Moet et Chandon in Epernay. Markel Redondo
A 5-ounce glass of red wine contains 150 calories and even supplies you with powerful antioxidants. If you prefer white wine, you'll save about 30 calories per glass. As for other alcohol options, Antonucci says Champagne (pictured, at Moët et Chandon in northern France's Epernay) and Pernod (an anise-flavored liqueur) are both a "steal" at just over 75 calories per serving.

"Beers range widely, but my advice is to skip the low-cal, low-flavor light beers in favor of strong flavored—and much more filling—darker, richer beers," Antonucci says. "They are well worth the extra 50 calories."


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Picnic in Paris. mt 23
There's no rule that says you have to eat out for every meal while on vacation. In fact, one of the best simple pleasures of visiting France is throwing together a spread from an outdoor market and having a picnic (pictured, in Paris) in one of the country's many beautiful parks.

"I recommend looking up times and dates of outdoor markets when you arrive in a city or town, as many of them run only twice each week," says Antonucci. "Then plan your picnic dates accordingly and go explore and enjoy whatever local, seasonal fare they have to offer."

Antonucci suggests choosing at least one fruit and one vegetable, and then adding local cheese and a fresh loaf of bread (opt for the pain complet, if available).

"That's all it takes for a perfect, simple, and healthy meal," she says.
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