France's obesity crisis: All those croissants really do add up, after all

When the bestselling book French Women Don't Get Fat came out in 2004, it was yet another occasion to begrudge Gallic females, who could always say oui to pâté, brie, and crème brûlée without ever having to get their Hermès skirts altered. It didn't help that the book's author, Mireille Guiliano, was then CEO of Clicquot (as in the champagne Veuve Clicquot) and was herself fabulously thin -- and wealthy.

But was the book a hoax? A new report shows that the French are really getting fatter, just like the rest of us. Some 26% of French women are now considered overweight, and 15.1% are clinically obese, reports the survey, conducted by WPP's (WPPGY) market-research arm TNS Sofres Healthcare and Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche (RHHBY). Of French men, a whopping 38.5% are overweight, and 13.9% are obese. "We are going to continue to see obesity increase," study researcher Marie-Aline Charles told Le Monde. "It's like a steamship that's been launched and can't quickly be stopped."
Quelle Horreur!

In a country that has prided itself on good health and good eating -- and mocked the boorish American lifestyle of eating on the run -- the news has been hard to digest. "The French Won't Stop Getting Fatter," screamed Le Monde's headline; rival Le Figaro warned of the "The Worrying Growth of Obesity in France."

Obesity is associated with a wide range of serious conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Charles blames the same factors that have made waistlines bulge in the U.S. and elsewhere: The French are exercising less, eating more fast food, and landing more service jobs where time is spent sitting at a desk rather than driving a tractor or working an assembly line. "It is imperative that we change the environment and continue to spread prevention messages that encourage less sedentary lifestyles and a more balanced diet," Charles tells Le Monde.

The Rich Get Thinner

The good news for France is that its obesity level is where the U.S.'s was in the 1970s. In the U.S., about 26.4% of the population is now considered obese -- defined as a body mass index of more than 30. But France is catching up, with the average French person packing on nearly 7 pounds over the past 12 years, the survey says.

Overall, some 6.5 million French, 14.5% of the population, are now obese. The rate is higher, 22%, among those earning less than 900 euros ($1,343) a month. Among those who made more than 5,301 euros ($7,910) a month, the rate was just 6%. The survey found regional differences, too: the north of France, known for its rich, heavy food, reported a 20.5% rate, and the east, 17%. In the Paris area, renowned for its concentration of three-star Michelin restaurants, the rate was 16.6%.

The study casts some aspersions on the "French Paradox" -- the myth that the French could consume a diet rich in saturated fats while avoiding coronary heart disease. But the French are straying from the very dietary habits that made them the envy of the world: eating small portions, eating lots of veggies, drinking in moderation, and avoiding snacking.

Sarkozy Orders a Report

Nutritionist Mitzi Dulan, co-author of the All-Pro Diet, says the French have long been able to indulge in creamy, rich foods because of skimpy portion sizes. But more measured eating habits have gone by the wayside, Dulan says. "I would imagine that with this weight gain, they have increased their portion sizes, and people aren't as active," Dulan says. "We all need to eat less and move more. There's no magic to it."

Of course, France isn't the only country struggling with a new obesity problem. Some 45% of men and 32% of women in China are expected to be overweight (with a body mass index between 25 and 30) by 2010, according to the World Health Organization. And in India, by next year, some 20% of men and 18% of women are expected to weigh too much, the report says.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has asked aides to prepare a report on obesity prevention, to be delivered Dec. 15. Meantime, the phones at WeightWatchers (WTW) France must be ringing off the hook.

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