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Investigating the French Paradox

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:31pm

By Barbara Berkeley

It’s a tough job, but someone had to do it.

Your intrepid reporter is filing this dispatch from Barcelona, Spain. When my husband discovered that Continental had established a direct flight from Cleveland to Paris and that we had enough frequent flyer miles to get us there for $150 in processing fees, he grabbed the seats before you could say, “Parlez vous francais.” We’re on the last leg of a two-week visit to France and Spain. I can tell you this: getting here was cheap, but once we arrived we quickly began to realize why there are no Americans in Europe this summer. The Euro is strong and the dollar is weak. It will be good to come home to a lunch that doesn’t cost $50!

While we certainly came for the magnificent architecture, museums and cathedrals, I also viewed this trip as an opportunity to do some first-hand detective work. I wanted to find out if it was true that French women really don’t get fat (as the book title suggests) and if so, why not? As you might expect, the answer is not straightforward.

French women, in fact French people of both sexes, are mostly normal weight. The rate of obesity in France is 10 percent, as opposed to 30 plus in the U.S. If you tend to be looking for these things, the contrast between French people and Americans is more than striking. It’s downright mind-boggling. Whether you are in the airport, at a highway rest stop or walking down the streets of Paris, you will see very few people who are overweight at all.

At the same time, it seems that every corner in France houses a “boulangerie” or bakery. Each produces the most exquisite artisanal bread – gorgeous loaves of whole grain, olive and corn as well as the indispensable, crunchy baguette. Lovely pastries decorate the shelves. The morning streets are filled with people carrying long loaves housed in white paper bags. There is no shortage of places to eat. Cafes with open air seating fill each street and are packed with people. Yet despite what would seem to be an encouraging environment for weight gain, the only people who seem to be overweight in Paris are the English, not the French.

England is suffering from an obesity crisis that rivals our own. On August 5th, a copy of “The Guardian,” one of Britain’s major newspapers, reflected a national debate. New legislation has been enacted that requires schools to send official letters to the parents of overweight and obese children. In England, 30 percent of kids are overweight or greater by age 10. Health officials have decided to intervene. But they are having a fight over the use of the words “obesity” and “fat.” The letters to parents classify children as normal, overweight or very overweight, but stop short of using the O or F words. A government spokesman said, “Use of the word ‘obese’ shuts people down. They associate it with 10-tonne mums and half-tonne kids…We have chosen not to use it. There’s no point giving them a letter that does not have any impact on their behavior.” But the government’s decision to shy away from the word “obesity” has annoyed health advocates who call the move “prissy” and “namby pamby”. The word obesity has importance, they argue, because “it’s the kind of shock word that makes parents sit up and take notice. It’s a nasty word, but by God it should sound alarm bells in parents’ minds.”

Thus, on my brief stay in Europe I saw two facets of the obesity problem laid side by side in neighboring countries. France: minimal obesity without governmental or parental controls. England: epidemic obesity prompting government regulation, blame-placing and a desperate search for answers. (Clickherefor a look at what an English food writer thinks about the contrasting diets of England and France.)

On its face, France seems to have gotten the weight thing right. But is that really true? I can only contribute a few observations made over a very brief period of time. I’m sure many of our readers either live or have travelled abroad. I hope those of you who’ve had the chance to see France’s eating style first hand will contribute your own thoughts to this discussion.

During my short stay, I observed that French culture is much more restrained than the one we Americans are used to. People do not smile easily (although they are incredibly warm and welcoming once you enter into conversation). Public spaces are extremely quiet and controlled. We took a five-hour train ride from Paris to Nice and the crowded car was silent the entire time. If a cell phone rang, the offender immediately silenced it and stepped into the dining car to speak. Too much crinkling paper or loud laughter attracted a disapproving look. 

This restraint even translates to the behavior of pets. Many French people have small dogs and the dogs are just as well behaved and quiet as their owners. They walk through the streets, often without leashes, putting on an impressive display of doggy deportment. They do not acknowledge strangers, trot patiently at the feet of their masters and seem unperturbed by other dogs or distractions. 

While the French may be carrying baguettes under their arms, you won’t see them eating anything on the street. With the exception of ice cream cones in the park, I didn’t notice anything that looked like snacking. In the cafes, most people appeared to be having drinks…sometimes a glass of wine, but often mineral water. Bottled water is consumed with every meal. Table tops are small and plates are correspondingly modest. People linger over conversation and seem to be doing a lot more sipping than eating.

The French towns that we visited by car still had many small shops and few, if any, big box stores. Bakers still have separate stores from vegetable merchants and butchers. Supermarkets were tiny compared to the American versions. Many people still appeared to shop using single bags or baskets and so were buying things in small quantity and for daily use. 

And, as elsewhere in Europe, the scale of life is smaller than in America. Houses are modest in size, cars are tiny and fuel-efficient and clothing is stylish yet simple. As I mentioned above, even the dogs are little. Europe’s smaller scale means that there is less need for superstores that fill homes with goods. Some of the finest cooking comes out of the smallest restaurants. This stands in opposition to our American tendency to buy large amounts of food to fill oversized kitchens. 

Another important difference appears to be the type of food consumed. French cooking relies heavily on simple yet elegant preparations of very fresh food. Although there is a lot of bread around, there is also a lot of fresh fish, meats, produce and good dairy. The packaged foods are missing.

Along the same lines, although not specific to France, I was particularly impressed by a visit to Barcelona’s central food market. Spain tends to be a heavier country than France, although still less overweight than the U.S. At least in Barcelona, there are a lot more venues for obtaining fast foods like sandwiches, pizza and ice cream. However, the enormous market off Barcelona’s central street reflects the nature of cooking in Europe. What most amazed me was the vast breadth of fresh products available. Among the meats were legs, loins, hearts, tripe, heads and feet. There were animals I didn’t even recognize (small pigs? rabbits?) The array of shellfish and seafood was mindboggling encompassing an endless variety that I’d never seen or heard of before. Fresh fruits, gorgeous vegetables, entire stands of nuts, seeds and spices. A true Primarian display. These stands made me think of my local supermarket in Cleveland. A week ago, I would have told you that my store was full of every possible product. Having seen the Barcelona market, I now feel as if we Americans eat from a completely impoverished menu. The vast majority of our foods combine flour, corn, oil and sugar. Our vegetables and fruits tend to reflect a small number of varieties that have become common because of a reliable growth habit. Then we throw in a little chicken, a bit of cheese, maybe a dash of dairy, and we’re done.

Women in France do appear to pay particular attention to maintaining a personal style. In general, people walk a lot and use public transportation. However, I did not see as many people running or biking as I might at home. There are no fitness places on every corner (nor are there very many McDonald’s or other fast food outlets). When a McDonald’s ad did appear on TV it was shown with a crawl at the bottom of the screen that reminded viewers to eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables and to avoid snacking. A similar message was shown over the occasional ads for snack products.

On balance, I believe that the French have got it right. They eat much smaller amounts of foods and these foods are well prepared and come directly from the earth or its animals. They don’t snack or eat at every opportunity. They eat in fewer restaurants (75 percent of meals are taken at home). They walk a lot. However, all of these behaviors are in easy harmony with a surrounding culture which is restrained by its very nature. The opportunities to snack and eat huge portions are not there. The constant advertisements for food are missing. The general size of the population is slim and most people seem to transmit the idea that it would be bad form to be larger. In other words, they show more restraint, something that is easier to do in country with that type of personality.

Is there any hope of eating as the French do if we’re trying to do it in America? That’s a tough one! In an earlier blog, I wrote about living in a Green House on the Hill. The hill was a metaphor for the idea that in order to maintain a healthy sized body in an unhealthy food environment, it was necessary to remove oneself in some way and live by a new set of rules. The French solution sounds great (lots of wine, cheese, meat and bread) but it is really predicated on that most famous of all weight-control dictums, “Find a way to make yourself happy with less.” As we know, Americans are fun-loving. They like more of things, not less. While that expansive personality is something we all love about America, it is also responsible for our becoming increasingly ill from the overconsumption of unhealthy foods. It seems to me that to some degree, the answer is to create a country within a country – a small territory in which we set our own rules and celebrate our own unique, personal culture. Our country can be modeled after the French, the Asian, the Mediterranean or our own fusion of elements, just as long as it keeps us healthy. Hopefully, as we refine the details of our particular territory, we will find others willing to move into our corner of the world.

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