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The French Are Getting Fatter, Too

Restaurants line a street of the Quartier Latin in central Paris.
Bertrand Guay
AFP/Getty Images
Restaurants line a street of the Quartier Latin in central Paris.

Part of an ongoing series on obesity in America.

As the United States struggles to cope with obesity rates, France is often looked to as a counterexample. Yet obesity is on the rise there as well now, and though French culinary traditions are often credited with keeping people trim, some worry those eating habits are under assault.

French obesity rates are still far below those of the United States and other European countries. One might think they would be a lot worse. The shops and outdoor markets are full of pastries, meats and cheeses, and people are always talking about food. It turns out that it's not only what the French eat but how they eat that seems to make a difference.

Obesity rates are rising in France, but how the French are eating is seen as more influential than what they eat.
Laurent Rebours / AP
Obesity rates are rising in France, but how the French are eating is seen as more influential than what they eat.

From the start, French children are taught to respect the ritual of mealtimes and the beauty of a well-balanced diet. At one public day care center in Paris, 2-and-a-half-year-olds sit around a table for a hot lunch. The tiny diners wear napkins at their necks and are taught the proper use of cutlery. A recent menu featured grilled leg of lamb and cauliflower au gratin, all freshly prepared in the day care's own kitchen.

Even at this age, the French believe dinnertime should be a moment of pleasure and conviviality. In France, starting each child with a solid culinary base in life is considered well worth the investment in time and money.

Dr. Jean Marc Catheline, an obesity specialist, says the French obsession with food is exactly what has protected them against obesity.

"The French know how to cook and prepare food," he says. "French families have always known what's good for them and what isn't. We are also a country with strong rural traditions and great respect for food from the farm."

However, Catheline says urbanization, immigration and globalization are moving France away from its eating traditions. Many young people are no longer interested in learning how to cook, he says, and the ritual of mealtimes is being forgotten. As a result, obesity is growing. Nearly 14 percent of the French adult population is now obese, compared with 8 percent just 10 years ago. Though these rates are still half those of the United States, the French government isn't taking it lightly.

The national obesity plan includes hip television ads encouraging people to eat the right foods, take the stairs and not to snack between meals. Vending machines have been removed from schools.

As in the U.S., Catheline says, obesity rates in France are higher in rural areas, where people drive everywhere. Obesity is also a bigger problem among the poor.

"There are some places in France where obesity levels are as high as in the U.S., like in poor, immigrant communities. So as we watch U.S. rates rise, this is extremely worrying for us," he says.

French visitors to the U.S. are often surprised by the way people eat. Lea Bresier, who spent a year teaching French in Virginia, says there seemed to be no order or rules to eating there.

"When I was in the U.S., everybody, they are eating all the time in the streets. They always have something in their hands, like Coke or sweet drinks, and they are always eating in their car," Bresier says.

The un-French habit of eating anywhere, anytime, seems to be catching on in France, especially with young people. It's not uncommon to see teenagers drinking out of liter bottles of soda while hanging out in the street — an unthinkable sight even a few years ago.

Pauline and Bertrand Dubois, who are in their late 30s, are raising their two young children the way they grew up, with regular family mealtimes. A normal dinner for the Dubois family includes ham and a puree blended from fresh vegetables. Bertrand Dubois worries American pop culture is changing French eating habits.

"We're copying what we see on American television shows," he said in French. "Now we think we have to do things we never did before, like open our refrigerator as soon as we walk in our front door, no matter the time of day."

The importance of cooking fresh food and avoiding dependence on high-calorie, processed food is at the heart of efforts to reduce obesity in France. It's not complicated, says Catheline.

"Knowing how to cook might not keep you from being overweight," he says, "but it will keep you from being obese."

If obesity has touched your life, share your story with NPR and the Public Insight Network.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.