PARIS — Try this: tell those around you at dinner that you have stopped consuming gluten. Or meat. Or dairy. And wait for the answers: "What's this, a new fad?", "Do you want to lose weight?", "Are you sick?"

Refusing to share a meal often sparks all sorts of comments and more or less unpleasant criticism, even debate. Since becoming a vegetarian four years ago, Laura Antonakis has become very familiar with this. "But… What are we going to eat?", "Men have been eating meat since prehistoric times!", "What you're doing is useless, it won't change anything", "Your carrot is suffering too" are remarks she often hears when the subject is brought up during meals. The 31-year-old Parisian librarian says she has been called a "quinoa eater" and a "stupid hipster."

Like many others, Laura tries to avoid this touchy subject, especially when she is with a new group. "I never try to convince anyone. But when I go out in Paris, my friends always get charcuterie, and refusing to eat it can trigger hostile behavior," she says. "I also get criticism from vegans who accuse me of not going far enough. ‘You don't eat animal flesh, but you don't mind wearing a wool sweater made in Bangladesh?' In the end, you can't make everybody happy."

It is difficult for people who follow a restrictive diet to know what behavior is best. "When I'm invited somewhere, I feel like I'm being judged as a selfish person," says Pauline Randet, 48, who lives in Moscow and stopped consuming gluten three years ago after being diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease. "You never know if it's better to tell them, not tell them, come with your own food or beg everyone to eat out, even if it means being frowned upon by the waiters."

A traditional moment of conviviality

In France, you don't joke about food. The French are known for their love of big festive meals where guests can indulge into the art of "eating well" and "drinking well." In November 2010, an intergovernmental committee of the UNESCO even decided to add the "Gastronomic meal of the French" to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

This "French-style" meal must meet certain criteria in terms of "time, schedule, location, space — eating at the table, for instance — and the structure of the meal — with a starter, a main course and a dessert. Most importantly, it must be shared with other people," says Claude Fischler, a sociologist and research director in food at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

In France, meals are a communion — Photo: Kelsey Chance

According to French tradition, the meal is a convivial moment during which people savor the dishes over a long period of time. A 2018 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) shows that France is the country where people have the longest meals, averaging 2 hours and 13 minutes every day. The overall average for other member countries is about 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Differently from the Protestant tradition in which food is not sacred, France is influenced by Catholicism where food is a communion. "This is my body, this is my blood… You can't be picky and ask if it's gluten-free," says Mr. Fischler. "Since the meal is a communion, if you show that you do not want to take part in it, you are literally excommunicating yourself."

In all religions — except Protestantism, which allows people to eat anything and everything at any time as long as they do not take pleasure in it — there is a common practice of food deprivation, according to Eric Birlouez, professor of nutrition at AgroParisTech. "This is sometimes called ‘fasting', when people refrain from eating certain foods for a period of time, such as Lent for Christians, Ramadan for Muslims, or Yom Kippur for Jews. The practice of fasting is pleasing to God because man is able to willfully control his food impulses, but also sexual impulses. You have to be able to show that the mind is stronger than the body", says the academic.

Since the meal is a communion, if you show that you do not want to take part in it, you are literally excommunicating yourself.

Since France and Southern European countries in general favor "commensality, or the sensory pleasure of eating, of having a good time together," says Birlouez, "it is not in good taste to refuse food. Moreover, one of the first things children learn is to try it before saying ‘I don't like it'."

Juliette Liegeois, a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Nice, decided to ban meat from her diet two years ago because "[it] disgusted her." Her worst memories? That time when she was invited to eat lunch at a neighbor's house, and they refused to give her a substitute dish saying: "It's your choice, own up to it!" She ended up not eating anything. There was also that time when the school cafeteria staff told her "Just pick the bacon out of your rice, there's nothing else." Her stomach remained empty, again.

"Overall, being different is a problem in France," says Céline, who started a gluten-free diet one year ago. This French teacher, who has been living in Hamburg for the past ten years and wishes to remain anonymous, noticed that there are very clear disparities between France and Germany, where people's food choices are much better accepted, particularly in restaurants, which systematically declare all of the dishes' ingredients.

Half of French people have changed their diet

Despite all of this, there has been a sharp increase in the number of French people who choose to eat differently. In 2017, the Observatory for Society and Consumption (Obsoco) published a study on French people's dietary behavior. According to this study, 21% of them follow a specific and permanent diet.

Among them, flexitarians — who limit their meat consumption without being exclusively vegetarian — are the most numerous (8%); followed by those who have banned sugar (4%); those who only eat organic food (1%), and vegans (0.4%). The study also reveals that half of French people say they have changed their diet in recent years.

"Your carrot is suffering too" — Photo: Jon Fife

While such diets are tolerated when they are part of a medical treatment, acceptance is more difficult when they are based on physical and mental well-being.

For Eric Birlouez, it is necessary to differentiate between diets where a specific toxic food is eliminated and those "who are part of a trend. Many people threw themselves into the gluten-free trend: celebrities, the world of design, fashion, media… One day, it's baobab pulp, the next, it's coconut juice. It allows people to stand out socially, to assert their identity. ‘I am not alone, there is a real or virtual community behind this.'"

"It is also important to distinguish diets who put an emphasis on the environment and animal welfare. Eating also means acting on environmental protection, limiting waste… In some spheres, this philosophy is not shocking, and is even becoming the new normal," adds the AgroParisTech professor.

From sausage to Christmas oysters, lamb on Sundays and regional specialties, starting a restrictive diet is also about cutting yourself off from French traditions.

Marthe Pariset, 27, vegetarian for the past four years, acknowledges this. "Food is linked to our history, to shared memories of our childhood. And when you refuse that, people's reaction can be very emotional, because it reminds them of their own contradictions: no one likes to see videos of slaughterhouses, but everyone loves eating a slice of sausage."

It took her several months to become fully vegetarian because of the strong "social pressure of my family, my friends and even in restaurants." For this marketing manager, who has been living in Munich for two years, France lags behind compared to Germany. "Even in Bavaria, the land of sausages, there is always a vegetarian option on the menu," she says, ironically. Her brother, a market farmer, strongly defends traditional agriculture, which "makes for very lively dinners." But despite this, her family has finally accepted her diet. Her latest victory: a vegetarian Christmas dinner. "I even convinced them to do this every other Christmas!"


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