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Adrienne Turner
before you indulge in a huge plate of fettuccine Alfredo, read on. The cream-based sauces and meat-laden dishes that you encounter in most Italian restaurants in the U.S. sadly have little to do with how Italians -- and the rest of the people who live in the Mediterranean -- actually eat.

The Mediterranean diet is inspired by peasant farmers and fishermen, and is based on seasonal ingredients. Mediterranean people eat what is available and fresh at different times throughout the year.

Thus, they enjoy a varied diet, composed primarily of plant sources with minimal amounts of eggs, red meat and sugar. Foods are fresh and unprocessed, and most of the fat they consume comes from olive oil, nuts, beans, and oily fish (as opposed to cookies, candy bars or soda).

Dairy products like cheese are eaten in small amounts daily and red wine is enjoyed in moderation. Red wine is packed with polyphenols, which have been shown in many studies to lower cholesterol and the amount of arterial plaque in the body.

The diet also includes loads of leafy green vegetables, which are full of healthy antioxidants and beta-carotene; both have been linked to lower heart disease rates and smaller incidences of lung cancer. Tomatoes -- a staple in the Mediterranean diet -- contain lycopene, which has been proven to protect against several types of cancer as well.

A typical Mediterranean breakfast does not consist of an extra-large bagel and sugary iced coffee like in the United States. Mediterraneans pair their fresh, morning bread with fruit, yogurt or nuts. A main meal in Italy might include a small portion of pasta or polenta with seasonally fresh vegetables and warm bread (usually without butter). Dessert is typically fresh fruit.

Meals the "Mediterranean way" are considered long social events shared with friends and family. Food is eaten slowly, which gives the body time to digest and process nutrients thoroughly.

The Mediterranean area is also blessed with a mild climate year-round. Therefore, it is no surprise that the people living in the region get more physical exercise -- usually via walking and bicycling -- than most Americans. diet secrets from the frenchIt's challenging to find an overweight person in France. Conversely, it's hard to walk down a street in France without quickly running into a bakery, chocolate shop or wine store. Still, the French are considered one of the healthiest populations in the world in terms of overall disease rates and obesity statistics.

Typical foods

The typical French diet includes butter, wine, full-fat cheese, bread, red meat, and of course, dessert. The French live on cream and butter sauces, regularly indulge on steak and pommes frites, and never miss the opportunity to share a mid-morning chocolate croissant and caf au lait with a friend. This so-called "French Paradox" has puzzled nutritionists for years.

So how the heck do French people stay so slim?Understanding the French diet and lifestyle

So what is their secret?

Unlike many cultures in the world -- specifically weight-obsessed Americans -- the French have a healthy relationship with food. Foods are not classified into "good" and "bad" categories, but are rather viewed as pleasures of life.

The French would rather enjoy a few bites of a rich chocolate mousse than load up on an oversized, "fat-free" (but sugar-filled) chocolate frozen yogurt.

French meals are often several hours long and consist of multiple courses. The French view meals as social events, and in between bites of snails, buttery duck breast and foie gras, they take time to talk to one another and catch up on the latest world events. The French -- unlike the Americans -- would never think to eat a meal in front of the television.

The French diet also includes a variety of heart-healthy ingredients. Fruits and vegetables are used liberally in meals, and most French people will only cook free-range poultry and pork. Unlike the "quick" American way of eating, the French rarely eat anything freeze-dried, dehydrated or hydrogenated. There is no such thing as "just add water" meals in France.

Size definitely matters to the French! Although their meals may be longer and more fattening, their portions are smaller; an American croissant is double the size of a French one! Therefore, although they consume richer foods, they take in fewer calories.

Additionally, the French rarely, if ever, snack throughout the day. They would rather enjoy a long, decadent meal than waste their time snacking on tasteless, empty-calorie treats, such as pretzels, potato chips or candy bars.

Although it's difficult to locate a gym in France (and even more challenging to find a French person who goes to one), people manage to stay slim by incorporating physical activity into their everyday lives, usually via walking or bicycling.

Adrienne Turner

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