business

Yes, Even the French Are Fatter

Despite what a new hit book claims, as fast food spreads, the country is indeed growing -- and that's not a comment about the economy

By Rachel Tiplady

It's one of the first balmy evenings of the year in Paris, and the young and beautiful are on display. From tables that magically appear as soon as the temperature hits 60 degrees, people lounge at sidewalk cafés, eyeing passers-by. Among the Left Bank denizens sit a young couple from Florida, over for a two-week vacation. Their conversation touches on typical touristy observations, the beauty of the architecture, the splendor of the museums, the magic of the food and wine. Suddenly, the woman's voice notches up a tone. "One thing I don't get: Where are all the fat people?"

There aren't any, according to Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, which has dominated The New York Times best-seller list since its release last December. Thanks to their healthy attitude and practices regarding food -- sauteeing it down to smaller portions, cooking with the highest-quality ingredients, and savoring each mouthful -- the French stay lean and serene (see BW Online, 4/25/05, "Fat Times for a French Woman").

LE BIG MAC

  Pas exactement. True, today France has one of the lowest obesity levels in Europe: 12% of the population, vs. 23% for Britain. (Some 31% of the population in the U.S. is considered obese.) But like many other countries in the developed world, France is seeing its population grow, and not just in numbers. Especially in poorer and rural areas, the French are getting fatter. Parisians may still exhibit the slimness that baffled the American visitor -- fewer than 10% of people in the wealthy capital are classified as obese -- but in outlying regions such as France's Northeast, hard hit by unemployment, adult obesity can exceed 20%.

And weight gain is accelerating, especially among children. French medical researchers figure adult obesity is rising by 6% annually, while it's surging up to 17% a year among children.

You don't have to look very far to figure out why. At lunchtime, lines at fast-food chains like McDonald's (MCD ) and homegrown rival Quick stretch to the door. National sales for the U.S. chain have grown 42% over the past five years, and 1.2 million French, or 2% of the population, eat there every day.

"Like the rest of the Western world, fewer and fewer French feel they have time to savor a long, healthy lunch," says Parisian psychiatrist Dr Gérard Apfeldorfer, who works with overweight and obese patients. Diabetes cases have doubled over the past 10 years in France, where annual soft-drink consumption per person has risen to 57 liters, up 19% since 1997.

LOVE-HANDLE POLICE.

  As well as eating larger amounts of processed foods, kids are leading increasingly sedentary lives. Instead of burning calories playing outdoors, they spend more time in front of the computer. "I am seeing more severely obese children than ever," laments pediatrician Dr. Marie-Laure Frelut.

Shocked by the latest statistics, the French Socialist Party has put forward measures to tackle its nation's expanding waistlines. At the end of March, the Deputy Health Minister and medical doctor Jean-Marie Le Guen warned that obesity in France would reach current U.S. levels by 2020. Because 70% of overweight and obese children remain so into adulthood, Le Guen suggested addressing the problem in schools. He wants children to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day and school medics to monitor kids' weights more closely. Snack machines are already being phased out in schools nationwide.

Recent measures from the European Union may help, too. In mid-March, it launched the European Platform for Action on Diet & Physical Activity, which brings together key decision-makers working in the food, retail, catering, and advertising industries. The platform aims to ensure that all foods sold in Europe have labels that clearly display the nutritional content. Obesity, which increases the risk of heart disease, strokes, arthritis, and hypertension, accounts for up to 8% of health-care costs in the EU, compared with up to 10% in the U.S.

MAGIC POTIONS.

  And regardless of what Guiliano, who is a trim size 6, says, most French women want to slim down. According to a 2003 survey by research institute CSA, the average French woman is a U.S. size 8 to 10, 5-feet, 4-inches tall, and weighs 140 pounds. Most wish they could lose 11 pounds or more and have tried several diets.

Indeed, the French are suckers for slimming lotions. The cosmetics industry has quickly fanned the flames of the increasingly weight-conscious nation, releasing umpteen new gels, creams, and serums that promise to reduce cellulite and shed inches off the thighs, waist, and buttocks. According to Britain-based research firm Euromonitor, in 2004, the French spent $230 million on these potions -- that's more than any other European country and 15 times more per capita than Americans -- despite the lack of proof that they work.

But unlike in the U.S., where the overweight often resort to tummy tucks or liposuction to slim down, the Gallic search for body beautiful stops short of surgery. "French consumers want to look the best they can without having to go under the knife," comments Alexandra Richmond, an analyst at Euromonitor. Writes Guiliano in her introduction: "Extremism has never been the French way."

Since French Women Don't Get Fat was published in the U.S. last year, 59-year-old Guiliano, who is also CEO of champagne house Clicquot, part of luxury-goods concern LVMH, has been hailed as a slimming guru. There's no denying she's a good advertisement for her book. Perhaps when its French translation hits shops in her homeland this fall, the nation's younger citizens can take a lettuce leaf out of her book.

Tiplady is a reporter for BusinessWeek's Paris bureau

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE