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Special to msnbc.com
updated 6/8/2007 8:09:11 AM ET 2007-06-08T12:09:11

Obesity is far less common in France than in the United States, and some researchers contend that smaller French portions are a key reason.

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Some Americans might assume they will feel deprived with smaller portions, but cross-cultural studies suggest we might find portion control surprisingly easy if we adopted some French eating customs and philosophies.

The contrast in obesity between France and the U.S. is dramatic: 32 percent of American adults are obese compared to 11 percent of French adults. The French are more physically active than Americans, which may account for part of this weight difference, but smaller portions in France also lead to lower calorie consumption.

Petite portions
Studies at Penn State University and Cornell University have demonstrated repeatedly that when we are served larger portions, we eat more. Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has completed several preliminary studies comparing portion sizes in Paris and Philadelphia. Rozin and colleagues set up comparisons of restaurants in the two cities, matching restaurants by location, price and type of food. The restaurants compared were either the same chain or parallel types, including fast food, Chinese, pizza, bistros and ice cream.Researchers weighed portions of similar foods served in each restaurant. In 10 out of 11 restaurants, French portions were smaller than Philadelphia portions by an average of 25 percent.

To compare the size of portions served in American and French homes, Rozin matched the popular U.S. cookbook, "Joy of Cooking," with a similar French cookbook. Portion size of recipes overall was 25 percent larger in the U.S. cookbook with portions of meat dishes 53 percent larger. Only vegetable portions were smaller (by 24 percent) in the American cookbook compared to its French counterpart.

Leisurely meals
One reason smaller portions seem to satisfy the French may be that despite eating less food, they spend more time eating it. In McDonald’s fast food restaurants, Rozin documented the French average lunchtime stay at 22.2 minutes compared to the U.S. visit at 14.4 minutes. A 2005 study found that although the French dinnertime has decreased in recent years, it now averages about 40 minutes. For many Americans, this may be surprisingly long.

Even if we are not ready to linger over meals, we can take lessons from French eating habits. First, we could begin by serving less food in order to eat less. Research shows that when we are served less food, we do not leave the table hungry. In Penn State studies, researchers served participants portions that were 25 percent smaller than what they ate at other times. The participants reported they were just as satisfied with the smaller portions as with the larger-sized meals.

Second, we should try to prolong a meal by serving food in several courses. The traditional French style of eating divides both lunch and dinner into several courses. This practice stretches mealtime, makes less food seem like more and gives the body time to achieve satiation. Some researchers suggest that eating slowly will help us better taste and savor food, creating more pleasure regardless of how much is eaten.

Try serving salad separately from the rest of the meal or offering fruit after a meal instead of more portions of meat. When eating out, realize that all-you-can-eat buffets — unheard of in Paris — may lead to excessive portions. Try ordering a healthy appetizer plus soup or salad. If you are served large portions you can pack some away immediately in a take-home box to reduce the chance you will absent-mindedly eat more than you intend.

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