Fighting French flab: is victory in sight for the US?

A few years ago Mireille Guiliano (pictured), French but based in New York, published a book called French Women Don’t Get Fat. This was read with much interest but attracted some criticism in her native country.

FatFrenchMireilleGuilianoClaimed nutritionist Dr France Belisle, “French women are becoming obese – and some massively obese. It’s a major public health problem.” And now the topic has again aroused discussion in the medical community. Professor Arnaud Basdevant, head of nutrition at the Pitié-Salpetrière Hospital in Paris, says that “Madame Guiliano’s title was certainly misleading, no doubt about it, but where obesity is concerned I do think we’ve had a wake-up call and we’re determined not to become – as some forecasts had it – as fat as Americans within a few years.”

That, of course, was a daunting prospect: around one-third of US citizens are clinically obese, many more are overweight. Currently, only 15% of the French are obese, up to 40% could do with fewer kilos. “I think we can say,” insists Dr Basdevant, “that we are reversing the trend.” How is this happening? “People are being careful about eating and they’re helped by new policies in school and workplace canteens. Then they’re taking more exercise – I’m all in favour of those bikes you can pick up in places like Paris and Nice. It’s also helpful that some American habits haven’t really taken on here – like snacking between meals and also we still like to eat together which puts a brake on too piggish behaviour. American portions are grotesque – one serving of steak in a Manhattan diner would do for a family in Paris!”

And a paradox: one benign influence on French eating habits has come from the US. Jenny Craig’s “diet in a box” is slowly but surely making its way into middle class homes here. Says a company spokeswoman (the brand was bought by Nestlé in 2006): “Americans know our system: you get a healthy pre-packed meal – in France something readily acceptable such as tuna with vegetables and barley, for example – which you can supplement as you wish with dairy products, fruit and vegetables. In the US the plan calls for six food experiences a day while in France meals remain three times daily.” Dubious, are you? Well, on the Jenny Craig website Mariah Carey, no less, tells us “I did the Jenny Craig solution. It works!”

Photo: Tim Knox