The Fat Fallacy: Applying the French Diet to the American Lifestyle – Will Clower, 2001

Although Clower doesn’t have as much hard data supporting his arguments as Walter Willett in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, this is a very convincing book. Basically he says that Americans are fat and unhealthy because they eat fake food, eat too fast, and don’t enjoy their food as part of a social context.

I spent a lot of time in France growing up (two 15-month periods plus summers from age 7 to age 16), so I can verify some of what he says. But there are French people who wrestle with their weight, although far, far fewer than in the U.S.; there are plenty of French people who have health conditions traceable to their diet; there are lots of French alcoholics. Nonetheless, most French people eat a high-fat diet, drink plenty of wine, and yet are thin and healthy. And it’s not a low-carb thing, because they eat plenty of white bread and enjoy pastries.

Clower has got to be on the right track. One of the most convincing features (it’s also enjoyable, and scary!) is the “faux-food quiz” after each chapter. Given the ingredients and a hint, can you guess what the “food” is? What’s really scary is how similar many of the ingredient lists are! I’ve become more aware of the prevalence and dangers of processed foods over the past few years (one of the prompts was Eric Schlosser’s “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good” in The Atlantic (later integrated into Fast Food Nation)), but reading The Fat Fallacy brought it to a head. My blood pressure rises when I see another food product marketed as “healthy” in some way, when it’s full of different formulations of the same crap. As Clower says, why would you eat any of that when real food is so yummy? He proves it, too, with an assortment of mouth-watering recipes.

Clower gives some concrete recommendations for how to eat which make a lot of sense. Slow down. Don’t heap your plate. Make meals enjoyable in both taste and atmosphere. He successfully communicates how weird it seems to the French for Americans to think stuffing themselves till they can’t move is a way to celebrate anything.

One of the very interesting points he makes is that many French diet/food experts distinguish between dairy fat and animal fat. (Good news for me & Jonathan, since we’re lacto-ovo vegetarians and love cheese above all things.) I’ve occasionally bought a pint of Stonyfield Farm full-fat yogurt to fill out breakfast, based on Clower’s recommendation, and it does indeed seem to stave off mid-morning hunger pains.

While the content of this book is great, the writing isn’t stellar and the book design is a little amateurish (a little Chancery font is PLENTY, in my opinion). Moreover, he doesn’t mention that the Mediterranean diet has all the strengths of the French diet but is even healthier, as Willett shows in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. But Clower is so straightforward, so enthusiastic, and so refreshingly willing to mock the stupidities of our brain-dead national diet, that I’d strongly recommend reading this as a complement to Willett. (Fast Food Nation is great in a different way, of course, but it’s so damn depressing!)

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