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French obsession with thin falters as obesity rises
READERS of recent books on French dietary habits – the latest of which is entitled French Women Don’t Get Fat – might come away with the impression that the country teems with glamorous women who dine on creamy sauces, snack on sticky pastries and still retain their hourglass pulchritude.

However, long-term residents of France know that this is utter rubbish. Outside the boulevards of central Paris, where slim chic admittedly remains de rigueur, the shape of the average French woman is getting far rounder.

Travel to the poor out-of-town suburbs or hang out at a country café, and the so-called “Gallic paradox” – the notion that the French have cracked some culinary code that allows them to remain permanently svelte – is quickly betrayed by the visual evidence.

This month, statistical proof has appeared to succour those who doubt the myth of the meagre mademoiselle. A specially commissioned parliamentary report claims that the proportion of adults who are clinically obese in France has gone up from 8% to 11% in the last five years. And women, it says, are as likely to be affected as men. In other words, French Women Do Indeed Get Fat.

Even more worrying are the figures for children. The proportion of boys and girls under 15 who are obese has doubled since 2000 to stand at 4%.

These numbers may fall well short of those recorded in the US, where 20% of the population is obese, but they dispel the notion that France is exempt – by virtue of some lifestyle peculiarity – from the same scourge that is sweeping the rest of the developed world.

As elsewhere – according to the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, which conducted the study – it is the socially and economically disadvantaged that suffer most.

“Modest homes endure tighter constraints in terms of income and time. They are also less informed of the consequences for their health of their eating habits,” said Pierre Combris, report co-author.

French graduates are thus three times less likely to be obese than those who leave school early, while only 7% of the children of executives are overweight, compared to 25% of children with unemployed parents. Overall, the report found that France is slightly better off than Britain, recording figures comparable with those from the US 20 years ago, though it is heading in the same direction.

The Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Health Policy (Opeps), which commissioned the study, made several recommendations to combat obesity – which it is feared could vastly inflate the nation’s future medical costs – including investment in sporting facilities and, more controversially, state subsidies on fruit and vegetables.

Noting that the cost of fatty foods in France has fallen by half in the past 50 years while vegetables have risen in price by a third, the Opeps said that the country’s richest 25% now consume three times more fruit and vegetables than the poorest. In effect, it makes economic sense to eat badly.

“Fruit and vegetables must be accessible to all, including the most disadvantaged households, thanks to subsidies that allow us to bring down the prices,” the Opeps concluded.

Another measure about to pass into law has angered the food and drinks industry, which already feels it is being unfairly targetted by the health ministry and pressure groups. Under a new social security bill, the government plans to punish companies that fail to attach health advisories on advertisements for processed foods.

From next year, manufacturers will be obliged to pay a 1.5% tax on their advertising budgets, unless they include wording agreed by the health ministry, in a prominent position on all printed and broadcast publicity.

The list of foodstuffs affected by the law has yet to be finalised, but it will certainly include all goods with high-fat or sugar content. Industry insiders fear it could extend to any pre-packaged product, and they have expressed mounting concern about the damage to their competitiveness.

As far back as 200 years ago, French philosopher and food writer Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said that “the destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves”. The sad truth is that the French are less different than they used to be – in this as in so much else. Day by day the “French exception” is disappearing.

In gastronomic terms, that means that the traditional evening meal, carefully prepared with fresh ingredients from the local market, is being replaced by snacks and a growing reliance on pre-packaged food. In corporeal terms, it means the French are – like the rest of us – getting fatter.

From Hugh Schofield in Paris

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Last Updated ( Aug 31, 2006 at 05:31 PM )