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Pamela Newton

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French Women Don't Get Fat? It's the Sugar!

Posted: 11/17/08 04:50 PM ET

You've heard the rumors about European women's uncanny ability to stay slim even while eating buttered croissants for breakfast (France), sausage and beer for lunch (Germany), or deep fried seafood for dinner (Spain). Perhaps you've even done research in the form of spending a week in Paris, ogling the lank beauties as they alternate bites of creamy pastries with puffs at their cigarettes. Well, I have taken the research to a new level, and have turned my own body into a test case for theories about European vs. American diets. And I have some interesting findings to report.

When I moved to Germany a couple years ago, all the American and Canadian women I knew were marveling at the fact that they were losing weight, in spite of eating habits that should have rendered the opposite results. We were indulging in beer, wienerschnitzel, bratwurst, potatoes in every incarnation, creamy dairy products with no English translations (schmand anyone?), yet we were all visibly getting thinner. I maintained my svelte European body throughout two years of living in Germany, through no design of my own.

On the flipside, when I moved back home to New York last summer with my German boyfriend, it took about a month for us both to notice we were getting soft. I ran through all the possibilities: it's true that I no longer have the bicycle, but I walk all over the city; I do yoga more often here; I never eat processed food or junk food; I'm not a dessert person; I cook healthy meals for myself with lots of organic vegetables; I hardly ever drink beer and there is not a wienerschnitzel in sight. I just didn't get it.

Then one day we were sitting at breakfast, eating a health food adaptation of cornflakes with soy milk and drinking a fizzy Vitamin C beverage. My boyfriend picked up the box of the Vitamin C drink and read the ingredients. The first one was Glucose. What is that exactly? According to Wikipedia, it is a monosaccharide, or simple sugar, also known as grape sugar or corn sugar. No wonder those C drinks were so addictive. Then we checked out our soy milk. First ingredient: Evaporated Cane Juice. The missing word here, is of course, sugar: what other kind of cane is there? The natural cornflakes... more Evaporated Cane Juice. Everything in our hippie breakfast contained sugar, disguised through misleading terminology!

Since then -- several weeks ago -- I have been consciously eliminating sugar from my diet and -- I swear -- I have already lost my American tummy. Admittedly, I am generally a skinny girl, and this is in conjunction with an otherwise healthy lifestyle. But I really believe sugar was the missing link in the American weight question.

Now I look at every item before I buy it and eliminate any with a sugar product (including glucose, fructose, sucrose, and all their friends). I have been going out to eat much less often, knowing from years of waitressing that the secret ingredient in many American restaurants is sugar. (Ever wonder why you can't get that authentic American-Chinese-Food taste when you make stir-fry at home? Try adding sugar.) On top of this, my boyfriend has noticed that certain products marketed in both Germany and the U.S. actually have more sugar in their U.S. versions. (He once bought a soda-type drink, took a couple sips, and threw it out saying, "This is disgusting! It has nowhere near this much sugar in Germany!")

In other words, in addition to all the other more obvious problems with the American diet, the one you may have overlooked in your attempts to get healthy is that we have a massively over-sugared food culture. It's not enough to shop at the natural food store. You have to remember what country that natural food store is in, and how far gone we are in an addiction to a drug that will never be made illegal but that is obviously at odds with healthy living.