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Cutting a Trim Figure in the Land of Croissants


Some travelers think of Paris and picture young lovers, fashions to die for, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or Versailles. Not my friends. They think of food.

John recommended the heavenly steak and divine French fries at L'Entrecote, the Parisian steakhouse.

Sergio reminisced about the perfect duck--and the exorbitant bill--at Tour D'Argent, the fancy penthouse restaurant overlooking Notre Dame and the Seine.

Karen gave me "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris" marked with her favorite cafes, bistros, brasseries, wine bars, tea salons, pastry shops, ice cream parlors and chocolatiers.

Gastronomical indulgences beckoned during my weeklong vacation, but I was on Weight Watchers and determined to continue losing the rest of the 50 pounds I'd gained since my wedding.

Paris is no place to watch calories--a slice of foie gras has 660; a chocolate eclair, 300; a cup of sorbet, for those who have the willpower, only 100. Yet, most French women believe they can never be too thin.

The French have two words for thin. "Mince" is defined in Collins Robert as thin or slender. The French-born husband of a friend defined it as: "Really fit. Really looking good. In great shape." "Maigre" is defined as thin or skinny. "Like a toothpick," said my friend's husband. 'Like Kate Moss," said a new French friend. Like the women I saw on the Metro. How do they stay so slim in a land synonymous with culinary delights?

It's easier to stay slim in France, according to my pencil-thin French teacher, Catherine. No food courts tempt shoppers at the mall. Portions in restaurants or the supermarket are generally much smaller than in the United States. The yogurt comes in little cups that hold 100 grams, about half of an American cup. A can of Coca-Cola Light, translation Diet Coke, contains about a cup instead of our customary 12 ounces. Potatoes, onions and other vegetables tend more toward the size of golf balls then California's baseball-sized produce. A steak is not much bigger than a deck of cards, unlike the 16-ounce New York steaks that crowd plates here.

In Paris, exercise is not limited to the gym. People walk everywhere and all the time--including up five flights of stairs to charming apartments in classic, old buildings that lack elevators.

In anticipation of my trip, I bought two pairs of comfortable shoes. I planned to enjoy Paris without gaining back any of the 22 pounds that had been so hard to lose, but I needed help in the land of croissants and other temptations.

The day after my arrival, I went to a Weight Watchers meeting, held at lunchtime in a mall in Montparnasse. Of the 30 women there, half looked perfect to me. Only a few clearly needed to lose weight.

The routine was similar to my lunchtime meeting held at work at The Times every Thursday. First, the women weighed in, though not in pounds, but in kilos. Then, the leader began the discussion.

What to do when you're craving chocolate, a universal problem, was one topic. One woman explained she read a good book to distract herself. Another drank tea and the feeling passed. Another took a shower to relax. Another phoned a friend. Still another, who preferred dark chocolate, bought only milk chocolate for her husband and children. Nothing is forbidden on the Weight Watchers program. The leader, the blond and svelte Anna, explained that some people can eat chocolate in moderation. Others, like me, need to stay away from it, except, of course, in France.

Counting calories isn't emphasized on Weight Watchers except when members keep track of 700 optional calories allowed weekly in addition to prescribed portions of protein, breads, fruits, dairy products and vegetables. At the Paris meeting, the leader flashed pictures of such delicacies as pa^te, sausage and pastries, and the members guessed the number of calories amid groans and laughter.

The hourlong meeting also focused on reducing fat and sugar from meals, but my elementary command of French didn't allow me to keep up with that discussion. I did understand suggestions to plan small meals at home and to save calories for later in the week because you never know when you are going to get an invitation to eat out, and the recommendation to save desserts for weekends. And I secretly rejoiced when a woman, who was about my size, explained that she had just returned from a two-week vacation and hadn't gained any weight. My goal, exactly. We would have given her a round of applause in L.A.

The meeting ended with an announcement that the average weight loss for the week was 878 grams, or nearly 2 pounds.


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