French women -- and men, and children -- do get fat

Expert holds up U.S. as warning

Los Angeles TimesSeptember 23, 2007 

— So it turns out French women do get fat.

French men, also. But most troubling to a country that prides itself on its approach to life and eating, French children are getting pudgier too.

The crisis is nowhere near as bad as in the United States, where 65 percent of the people have serious weight problems, or in parts of southern Europe such as Spain and Portugal, where the vaunted Mediterranean diet hasn't helped the one-third of the children who are more than just plump.

But people here have gotten away from the concept of food as a luxury eaten in modest quantities. Bread, for instance, always has been a staple, especially when people didn't have enough money for meat or cheese. Now the French can have all three -- and do.

The lifestyle of the wealthy West also has caught up with France. Working parents increasingly don't have time to shop at outdoor markets and instead use processed foods, often frozen, from the supermarket. And there is more snacking with less savoring.

French parents, politicians and doctors are concerned that if they don't focus now on prevention and reverse the trend, particularly among children, rampant obesity will become another common import, worse even than McDonald's and Disney movies.

Already, 42 percent of the French are either overweight or obese, according to Inserm, the national institute for medical research and health. The rate among children and adolescents has quadrupled in the past 25 years and has been growing almost as fast as in the United States.

"If you look at the statistical curve, we're now where the U.S. was in the 1970s," said Olivier Andrault, a food expert with the French Union of Consumers. "It means if we do nothing, in a few years the French will be as fat as Americans."

Obesity increase noted

The country started noticing its expanding waistlines in the late 1990s, when a once-a-decade study by Inserm turned up a slight increase in the numbers of obese women. Epidemiologists, aware of the pandemic elsewhere, started more frequent studies -- and found a spiraling trend. Economically deprived areas in the north were the hardest hit.

Many, initially, were in disbelief that a French person could get as fat as one of those soda-slurpers in American sitcoms. In part, that was because of an enduring faith in what outsiders enviously refer to as the "French paradox." Here was a nation that has feasted on rivers of red wine, more than 300 varieties of cheese and patisseries full of buttery desserts, and it still managed to maintain a low rate of heart disease and obesity.

Nothing better marketed the image of effortless French thinness than Mireille Guiliano's 2004 book, "French Women Don't Get Fat," a bestseller in the United States. A petite Champagne company executive living in New York, Guiliano has had Americans dreaming that they, too, could eat foie gras and chocolate -- a taste of this and a taste of that -- and stay slim.

But for the French translation, the title was changed to "These French Women Who Don't Get Fat: How They Do It." In France, it was marketed (with modest success) to women with weight problems who envy that "French girl in the office who eats a box of chocolates at her desk and never gains an ounce," said Elsa Lafon, daughter of the French publisher.

"Obviously, French women do get fat!" she said. "Obviously, they don't have time to cook and shop and live like Mireille! She's a wonderful hostess, but in many ways she's your worst nightmare, with a beautiful house ... a great husband. She's what we all want to look like, be like, but it's impossible."

Culinary culture shift

The French food culture that Guiliano portrays is struggling for survival against a modernized world in which people are drifting away from the ritual of three balanced meals, exercising less and eating larger quantities.

"When your mother cuts a piece of bread and adds a bit of jam and butter, she can check just how much sugar is in breakfast," Andrault said. "But the percentage of sugar in breakfast cereals ranges from 30 to 50 percent, which is big and making our kids bigger."

Many want the French government more involved. A health initiative in 2000 called for cutting the number of people who are obese or overweight by 20 percent by 2005. That didn't happen.

Consumer and child advocates want more radical means to fight obesity. They aren't impressed by a new law that requires food advertisements to include a four-prong message promoting healthy eating. (At the movies, candy bars are sold with a reminder to eat your vegetables.) They're lobbying the National Assembly to prohibit all ads for unhealthful foods during children's programming and to make government guidelines for school cafeterias compulsory.

Jean-Michel Cohen, France's most famous diet doctor, is among those who believe that only the government is powerful enough to counter global food companies that have been flooding supermarkets with sugary and fatty foods.

For him, the problem can be summed up in a container of yogurt:

"Ten years ago, we had 100 varieties of yogurt in France, and now we have 1,000," said Cohen, who has written five nutrition books. "To win over their competitors, food companies keep adding fat and sugar to the yogurt." The same container that had 60 calories 10 years ago now has an additional 15, he said, adding, "If you imagine that all foods are growing this way, it's a problem."

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