Eating with Abandon: The French Way

I often work with individuals who struggle with OVER activities, and it’s usually part of the reason why they are seeking executive coaching. OVER-working, OVER-stressing, OVER-checking, and OVER-preparing to name a few.  Often these OVER activities follow a cyclical pattern of OVER-working (in some form) followed by OVER-indulgence. It’s frequently a hamster wheel pattern, not at all dissimilar to ‘yo-yo dieting’. Working hard and playing hard may work for a short period of time, but it’s hardly sustainable.

Here in Avignon, in the South of France, I walk past three exceptional patisseries in the 100 metres it takes to get to the corner store to buy milk. Their shelves are loaded with croissants that are as light as air, pain au chocolates that literally melt in your mouth, freshly baked baguettes, and an array of flans, cakes and biscuits. I eat them regularly here….but I am slowly learning to eat them the French way.

In Western countries, eating with abandon usually means saying ‘screw it’ and scoffing down excessive amounts of our indulgence of choice. Whether it be a Cadbury bar or block eaten at the desk while busily finishing a report, or McDonalds drive through in the car as we rush to the next commitment, or a bottle of wine to ourselves on a Friday night after abstaining all week. Eating with abandon in these contexts often involves:

~ Devouring more than we wanted to, often after a period of abstaining or ‘being good’,

~ Consuming to the point where it makes us feel ‘below par’ physically,

~ Mindlessly, rather than mindfully, consuming (where did that block of chocolate go?!),

~ Feelings of guilt or remorse, or a need to be ‘restrictive’ to compensate for our indulgence (and we are back to our cycle of OVER-work and OVER-exercise on our hamster wheel!).

In France, I am learning that eating with abandon has a completely different meaning.  It means to completely give over to the full experience of food, and enjoy it as one of life’s great pleasures. There is a balanced approach, which seems to spread to many aspects of French life. Of course, the French have many customs that support this approach. Meals are eaten at the table, and never in the car or at a desk.  Food is a social affair, and quality is always prioritised over quantity. They utilise food that is fresh and in season, or freshly prepared. Meals take time, and you can eat anything you wish in the right portion.  Importantly, the French understand that feeling satisfied is different to feeling full.

When we OVER-work and OVER-stress, we place a huge demand on the sympathetic arm of our autonomic nervous system. This part of our nervous system is responsible for ‘fight and flight’ and giving our bodies the extra ‘revs’ it needs to make it through challenges.  In today’s workplaces, I see so many people who are constantly working under huge personal stress levels. Their sympathetic nervous system is running on empty, yet still being taxed as they push to do more. They rarely, if ever, ‘rest and recover’ through activating their parasympathetic nervous system. Despite the immediate sense of reward, OVER-indulgence is not the pathway to genuine rest and recovery. This can only be achieved through ‘slowing down’ – our breathing, our minds and our bodies. Our bodies naturally wish to stay in balance, but often we give them no support in this process.

Personally, I know how difficult it can be to force yourself to slow down, when you have been ‘burning rubber’ all week. If I’m honest, I find over-activity somewhat addictive, and I don’t think I’m the only one. When I am in this zone, trying to meditate or ‘just relax’ can honestly feel like torture! However I find at these times, the following activity really helps. It is simple, easy, and everyone has time for it.

Activity: Three Pleasures
Select three pleasurable activities that you can include in your current schedule, without any inconvenience. It may be buying your favourite indulgence coffee on your way to the meeting (mine is a caramel macchiato) rather than your everyday flat white. Or eating your favourite peanut butter on toast in the morning, which you don’t often allow yourself because you read somewhere it’s not healthful enough. Other favourites of mine include:

~ Reading just a few pages of a book or blog, just for pleasure,

~ Listening to 10 minutes of a favourite podcast (rather than vacuous radio chatter) in the car,

~ Listening to my favourite ‘uncool’ song and singing loudly,

~ Giving myself a quick five minute hand massage at my desk,

~ Eating my lunch outside with a view of nature, rather than at my desk,

~ Spending five minutes just patting and fussing my dog,

~ Reading to or playing a word game with my child for ten minutes with all devices away.

These simple pleasures are many and varied, and highly personal (I’m sure my pleasure of peanut butter and cheese on toast would seem like a punishment to many!). There is only one simple rule – for however long you can, do nothing else but enjoy the pleasure. Even if it is only for a minute or two.

Try counting out three of these pleasures throughout the day. This simple exercise is incredibly powerful and has the potential to improve your focus, your creativity, your health, your relationships and your general sense of well-being.

Viva La France!

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