The Fat Revolution

Sadly, the number of seriously overweight children in France has more than doubled since the 1980s. There are fat camps in France where once the very idea was ridiculous. The report encourages parents to engage their children in physical activities. As well, it wants food manufacturers to clearly label nutritional information on packaging, particularly on high-fat foods.

The Toronto Star
March 22, 2002

The Fat Revolution
After decades of apparent immunity, the French are finally getting fat — thanks to sedentary lifestyle, snacking, fast food
David Graham

PARIS — The biggest thing to come out of France these days is, well, the French.

After decades of eating fatty boeuf bourguignon, duck confit and sugary crème caramel and all the
while remaining as thin as a mille feuille pastry, the balance has tipped in the other direction.

It's not fair, chubby North American tourists have been grumbling for years.

But that appears to be changing.

Quel horror! The French are gaining weight.

Unbelievably, obesity in France is reaching epidemic proportions, according to a government health report issued last month.

Although the rate of obesity is still lower than in Britain and the U.S., for example, the number of French people classified as dangerously overweight has risen by 17 per cent in three years, with some 4.2 million people diagnosed as medically obese. That's almost 10 per cent of the population.

The figures were revealed in a joint survey conducted by the drug company Hoffman-La Roche AG and France's National Institute of Health and Medical Research.

Until now the French population had been considered a medical marvel because they enjoyed a diet rich in fat and sugar yet remained unfailingly thin.

It was even given a name: The French Paradox.

As any visitor to this country worth his Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap would tell you, it was a wildly unfair phenomenon that the French seemed to eat whatever they wanted and never paid the price. For diet-conscious Americans, the French, nutritionally speaking, had been getting away with murder. They ate all the buttery croissants, creamy soups, yummy foie gras, dense pastries, rich chocolate and stinky, gooey cheese that their hearts desired, and yet as a nation, their rates of obesity and heart disease were mind bogglingly low.

Over the years, scientists have pointed to the consumption of red wine as a possible reason why the French remained so slim. Some even believed there was something healthful in the foie gras, or the garlic or the onions. The phenomenon has yet to be categorically explained, although the red wine theory did wonders for wine sales, particularly those from the Bordeaux region in southwest France. As swiftly as one researcher elevates a theory, it is debunked by another.

But it is apparently irrelevant now as the paradox is losing its currency.

Many researchers blame the country's sedentary lifestyle and a change in diet.

According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, France has the highest per-capita daily consumption of fat. While the world average is 71.7 grams of fat a day, in France each person consumes about 165 grams.

The report suggested everything was fine in the '80s. But then, particularly over the past 10 to 15 years, the big American fast food chains rode into town.

Sadly, the number of seriously overweight children in France has more than doubled since the 1980s. There are fat camps in France where once the very idea was ridiculous. The report encourages parents to engage their children in physical activities. As well, it wants food manufacturers to clearly label nutritional information on packaging, particularly on high-fat foods.

Some researchers — including Dr. Malcolm Law and Nicholas Wald of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London who wrote of the McDonaldization of France in the British Medical Journal last May — say they have been predicting for years that the French would start gaining weight. They believe the change is the result of the French people's increased consumption of animal fat. They conclude that an epidemic of coronary heart disease is now approaching.

And it's only a matter of time before the epidemic sparks a dramatic rise in the rates of cardiovascular disease.

McDonaldization is French slang for the increased influence of American fast food companies that populate the boulevards of Paris. There is a steady lineup at the McDonalds outside the famous Louvre museum and by no means are they all North American tourists homesick for the taste of something familiar off a menu that doesn't require a phrase book to translate.

The lines include young and old, the tres chic and starving students, all prepared to plunk down a few euros for a delicious Royal Cheese burger, frites and a Coke.

Some people believe the French are snacking, something that was unheard of before. Tradition holds that meals here were always at a specific time, that there should be multiple courses and that the portions would be small. As well, there should be much lively discourse and bowls of fresh fruit at each meal. The rich restaurant food was intended for special occasions. And what's more, food experts argue that, particularly in more affordable restaurants, the quality and freshness of the food have declined over the years as local restaurants cut costs to compete with the fast food chains.

Though the unsettling trend is sadly showing up in children, it is the women of France — who have always prided themselves on their lithe figures — who appear most concerned.

Monique Santeno, who owns the Fabrice accessories boutique in Yorkville, lives half the year in Toronto and half the year in France. She has witnessed the transformation, the advertisements for Dannon (the French yogurt giant) which is a low calorie product that "protects your child against fat." But she has also seen a proliferation of diet ads in women's fashion magazines, the diet pills and anti-cellulite beauty products (known as crèmes minceur because the ministry of health here officially forbids any cosmetic manufacturer to use the term "anticellulite") that fill the windows of pharmacies.

Many French women, who pale at the idea of joining a gym, are looking for quick fixes in a jar or tube. As Susan Hack observed in France Today, The Journal Of French Travel And Culture, some women are content to rejoice in their "padded silhouette of sexual maturity" but just as many are horrified and want it gone.

According to the National Consumer Institute, French women are buying 1.5 million tubes of these products each year, despite the hefty cost for a 30-day supply. The multi-million dollar crème minceur market continues to expand by 15.5 per cent a year and constitutes 35 per cent of all skin-care purchases in France. This month, Christian Dior Laboratoires unveils its "new diet for your skin" called Bikini, an a la carte approach to body contouring. The products in the Dior collection, including Bikini Minceur, Bikini Tonicite and Bikini Revitalisation, promise women a figure they'll be proud to take to the beach.

Santeno says this is a nation that was "caught off guard."

"I remember when we only ever ate ice cream in the summer. Now we can have Häagen-Dazs throughout the year. Before the diet used to be well balanced. We ate our meals slowly. We never used to see people walking down the streeet with a Starbucks coffee, eating a muffin."

Santeno blames the high-fat, sugary snack that has crept into the French diet undetected.

Now, like their North American counterparts, the French are trying to undo the damage.

And they want a quick fix, particularly the women. Let's face it, the chic little black dress becomes something else altogether when it comes in size 24.

For those women who are getting comfortable with their new shape, local department stores such as H&M are providing clothing departments with their needs in mind.

Even on the ever fashionable Rue St. Honore where it has historically been impossible to find a dress over size 12, there is a new store in town, a plus size women's clothing chain, Elena Miro.

As their American counterparts might sigh, there is justice after all.

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