By Thane Peterson I've just returned from a 10-day visit to Paris. And the most frequently asked question coming from my American friends is: Why aren't French people fat?
This really seems to bug Americans. They go to France, where breakfast every morning is buttery croissants. Where every fourth shop window is piled high with artery-clogging pastries. Where the main course at lunch and dinner is often drenched in a creamy sauce -- and followed by an entire course consisting only of cheese, then rich desserts. Where no one seems to worry over food labels, and joggers and health clubs are rare by American standards.
Yet, Paris is almost entirely peopled by the svelte. The women are elegant, thin-ankled, and wasp-waisted. The men are trim. I always suspect that half the befuddled American tourists in oversize Hawaiian shirts and baggy cargo shorts you see searching maps on street corners are really trying to scope out where all the fat people live. MacDonald's? Quel horror!
A SIMPLE LESSON? Seriously, though, this is an important issue. The U.S. adult obesity rate now stands at an appalling 20% or higher. By some measures, 60% of Americans are at least somewhat overweight. If there's a simple lesson we can learn here, maybe we ought to try. After all, most Americans will spend tomorrow, July 4, celebrating our nation's freedom by stuffing their gullets with three times the recommended daily caloric intake, most likely with burgers, hot dogs, and beer. This is something the French would never do.
My envious American friends have developed their own theories as to how the French stay thin. "The women are all bulimic," sniffs one female friend, a prominent magazine editor in New York. There actually may be something to this. When I queried another friend, Joyce Heard, a Massachusetts-born public relations consultant in Aix en Provence whose husband is a French chef and restaurant owner, she cited dieting as one of a long list of reasons for this phenomenon.
"Don't kid yourself. French women diet all the time," she e-mailed. "Just take a look at the women's magazines." She, too, mentions bulimia. "I have one French woman friend who goes out to dinner, eats everything on the table, and then goes home and makes herself throw up. I don't believe this is common, but [it] shows you that the French do work at staying slim."
DISTURBING TRENDS. However, many tell-tale signs show that obesity is becoming more worrisome in France, says my friend Marie-Jo Malait, a management consultant in Paris. She notes, for instance, that the French yogurt giant Dannon is now running TV ads for a dairy product that says "this low-calorie product protects your child against fat." She says she has never seen such an ad in France before, and thinks it could be the beginning of a trend.
She also notes that chain stores such as Leclerc and H&M are starting to sell "plus-size" clothing. That's "really new," she says, though she notes that it's still difficult to find clothes in size 16 and above in French stores.
If you get to the countryside, you'll find lots of stout Frenchmen and -women. The obesity rate is around 20% in the Bas-Rhin area of eastern France and around Lille in the north, same as in the U.S. Two British scientists noted in a 1999 article in The British Medical Journal that since 1970, the fat content of the French diet has steadily increased. They predicted that it's only a matter of time before heart-disease rates and other health problems associated with being overweight start to rise.
IT'S AN ATTITUDE. Still, France has the lowest obesity rate in Europe. Only Sweden and The Netherlands are anywhere close. So what is it about French diets and habits that keeps people thin? The most obvious difference is the French attitude toward food. For many Americans, eating has become just another form of therapy. They obsess over calories and grams of fat, eating this food to get more antioxidants, that food to get more fiber. You hardly ever hear anyone talking about eating broccoli, say, simply because it's fresh and in season. And how many Americans regard a meal as an occasion to gather and talk?
Most French people, by contrast, still take food, and meals, very seriously. Gathering to eat together in the evening and on weekends is still sacrosanct in most French families. And most people eat three balanced meals a day, with very little snacking in between. Says Jean-Marie Jacqueme, Joyce's restaurant-owner husband: "In France, eating is a religion, like a Catholic Mass: At a fixed hour, for a predetermined amount of time, with an unchangeable ritual, we sit down to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In the U.S., people eat whenever they want -- which is all the time -- and whatever they want."
Also, the rich food you see folks eating in French restaurants is for special occasions. I've dined with French families in their homes dozens of times, and invariably they serve far more fresh vegetables and fruits and far less sugar and fat than Americans do. There may be four or five courses, but the portions are small, with meat being one of the many side dishes rather than the center of the meal.
"The French don't eat these great-big helpings," says Julia Child, the famous American authority on French cooking. "It's really horrifying to them to go to Disneyland and see these great-big fat Americans plodding along, always eating something (see BW Online, 11/21/00, "A Little Bit of Everything, and Have a Good Time").
PALATE TRAINING. Americans have pretty much given up on educating their kids about nutrition and have ceded control of cafeterias and concessions stands to Pepsi, Coke, and McDonald's. In France, by contrast, many parents start training their children's palates -- giving them tastes of good adult food -- from babyhood. And from the age of 3, all children go to school full-time, where eating well is one of the key lessons they're taught.
"In all these places [even in summer camps], there are dietitians, and the meals are balanced, with at least one warm serving, vegetables, fruits, etc.," says French sociologist Jeanne Fagnani, another friend of mine in Paris. "So, the eating habits learned here from a very early age are very different from those in the U.S."
All of this may sound pretty obvious. We already know we should eat less, not snack, and add more fruit and vegetables to our diet. But the key is starting to appreciate food and meals. Earlier this year Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for The New York Times, described in a column in Gourmet how she had always been a bit overweight until one day she decided to eat exactly what she wanted. Miraculously, she gradually lost 30 pounds.
As the French have known for years, if what you want to eat is good, fresh food in the company of others, keeping your weight down isn't all that hard for most people. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online