MIREILLE Guiliano, a French exchange student, eagerly rushed toward her father, who was waiting on the dock. Guiliano was returning home after an eventful year in the U.S. Her father coolly assessed his beloved daughter as she approached. "Tu ressembles ?? un sac de patates[You look like a sack of potatoes]," he told her flatly. Crushed, Guiliano, then 19, knew exactly what he was talking about. Living la vie am??ricaine, full of brownies and chocolate-chip cookies, had won her an American figure, padded with an extra 20 lbs. A return to the Continent and French habits quickly cured the problem.
It's one of the great mysteries of nutrition: how the French manage to consume liters of fine wine and beaucoup de bonbons and still stay slim. Author Guiliano, now a dual citizen, claims to have decoded the secret in her surprise best seller, French Women Don't Get Fat(Knopf). Even the current U.S. antagonism toward all things Gallic has not dampened the book's reception. It has gone through six printings and shot to No. 2 on Amazon.com
Nearly 40 years after her father's blunt comment, Guiliano says she has figured out the difference between American and French lifestyles--at least on the distaff side. Her assessment of American culinary errors: "Fast foods; rushing; not taking the time to sit down for meals, and not eating for pleasure. I see people eating, and they're just gulping it down. They're eating almost on autopilot, like robots."
Nor is the American style of dieting to her liking. Atkins? "For Europeans, it's gross. They can't eat like that. After a few days of not eating fruits and vegetables and not drinking wine or eating pasta ... it's so foreign to us. So unbalanced." But she's not any fonder of other weight-loss regimens. "Basically, diets don't work," she insists. "If they worked, everyone would be thin and healthy."
So what does work? Guiliano, a size 6 and 112 lbs. dripping wet, sticks to simple, fresh ingredients, serves modest portions and savors every bite. "The main difference I see between here and France is that people here eat so much processed food," she says. "It's frightening what's in there." Guiliano herself eats lots of fruits, vegetables and fish. "Leeks and yogurt are my best weapons," she says. Not surprisingly, Guiliano, a director of champagne maker Veuve Clicquot, favors moderate wine drinking with meals.
Are there really no fat French women? "Of course there are fat French women," Guiliano says. "There are fat people everywhere." But, she adds proudly, "as a rule, there are fewer."
For the record, 10% of the French are obese, compared with 33% of Americans.