World & Nation

In France, fat makes an entrée

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

So it turns out that French women do get fat.

French men also. But most troubling to a country that prides itself on an extraordinary approach to life and eating, French children are getting pudgier too.

The problem is nowhere near as bad as it is in the United States, where 65% of the population has serious weight problems, or in parts of southern Europe such as Spain and Portugal, where the vaunted Mediterranean diet hasn’t helped the one-third of the children who are more than just plump.

But people here have gotten away from the concept of food as a luxury eaten in modest quantities. Bread, for instance, has always been a staple, especially when people didn’t have enough money for meat or cheese. Now the French can have all three -- and do.

The lifestyle of the wealthy West has also caught up with France. Working parents increasingly don’t have time to shop at outdoor markets and instead use processed foods, often frozen, from the supermarket. And there is more snacking, less savoring going on.

French parents, politicians and doctors are in a panic, believing that if they don’t focus now on prevention and reverse the trend, particularly among children, rampant obesity will become another American import, worse even than McDonald’s and Disney movies.

Already, 42% of the French population is either overweight or obese, according to the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, known by its French initials, Inserm. The rate among children and adolescents has quadrupled in the last 25 years and has been growing almost as fast as in the United States.

“If you look at the statistical curve, we’re now where the U.S. was in the 1970s,” said Olivier Andrault, a food expert with the French Union of Consumers. “It means if we do nothing, in a few years the French will be as fat as Americans.”

The country noticed its expanding waistline in the late 1990s, when a once-a-decade study by Inserm turned up a slight increase in the numbers of obese women. It was a statistical blip, but epidemiologists, aware of the pandemic elsewhere, launched more frequent studies -- and found a growing trend. Economically deprived areas in the north were the hardest hit.

Initially, many were in disbelief that a French person could get as fat as one of those soda-slurpers in American sitcoms. In part, that was because of an enduring faith in what outsiders enviously refer to as the “French paradox.” Here was a nation that has relied heavily on rivers of red wine, more than 300 varieties of cheese, patisseries full of buttery desserts, and still managed to maintain a low rate of heart disease and obesity. Portion control and a habit of cooking with fresh food inevitably helped.

Nothing better marketed the image of effortless French thinness than Mireille Guiliano’s 2004 book, “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” a runaway bestseller in the United States. A petite Champagne company executive living in New York, Guiliano has had Americans dreaming that they, too, could eat foie gras and chocolate -- a taste of this and a taste of that -- and stay slim.

But for the French translation, the title had to be changed to “These French Women Who Don’t Get Fat: How Do They Do It?” Here, it was marketed (with modest success) to women with weight problems who envy that “girl in the office who eats a box of chocolates at her desk and never gains an ounce,” said Elsa Lafon, daughter of the French publisher.

“Obviously, French women do get fat!” she said. “Obviously, they don’t have time to cook and shop and live like Mireille! She’s a wonderful hostess, but in many ways she’s your worst nightmare, with a beautiful house . . . a great husband. She’s what we all want to look like, be like, but it’s impossible.”

The French food culture that Guiliano portrays is struggling for survival against a lifestyle in which people are drifting away from the ritual of three balanced meals, exercising less and eating larger quantities.

Yes, occasionally a construction crew unfolds a metal table on a city sidewalk, throws on a cloth and puts out lunch, all three courses. But increasingly the pressure to work through the sacrosanct midday meal has driven people to skip the formule midi at a cafe and scarf down a sandwich at their desk. And instead of the classic fresh bread smeared with butter for breakfast, more French children are digging into bowls of sugary cereal.

“When your mother cuts a piece of bread and adds a bit of jam and butter, she can check just how much sugar is in breakfast,” consumer advocate Andrault said. “But the percentage of sugar in a breakfast cereals ranges from 30 to 50%, which is big and making our kids bigger.”

The average French person still spends 30 minutes a day cooking, according to a report by the research firm Euromonitor International, but that figure is rapidly falling.

And, if what emerged at a recent Weight Watchers meeting in a Paris suburb is true, more French women not only don’t have time to cook, they don’t know how.

Most of these Weight Watchers had come straight from work to the gathering in a restaurant in Le Raincy, a middle-class suburb about an hour’s drive through miserable traffic from the center of Paris. After the typical round of confessions of one too many squares of chocolate and nibbles at the charcuterie, Patricia, the group leader, held up a set of white plastic measuring spoons and asked, “Does everyone know what this is?”

There were 30 women in the room and no one said a word.

Finally, Sabine, a saleswoman who lost more than 30 pounds last year on Weight Watchers, piped up: “Could you explain the quantities again?”

Spoon by spoon, Patricia explained. Then she looked around:

“OK, who cooked this week?” she asked.

Silence, again.

“I didn’t have time,” said a woman who works in a bakery and keeps busy resisting fresh baguettes all day.

One woman had made a few meals that week, but “quickies.”

Later, Sabine, 38, had more to say on this topic: “Whenever I take the time to shop and cook and eat a decent dinner like I had growing up, I lose the weight. But whenever I try to survive on just a pain au chocolat in the morning and nothing all day, I panic, and things go badly.”

Testimony from these dieters and nutrition experts suggests that France’s best hope for halting its slide toward obesity is in rediscovering its roots. In other words, the French have to learn to eat like the French again.

“We have to go back to the pleasure of eating,” said Marie Citrini, general secretary of an umbrella group tackling obesity. “We have to get our sense of taste back.”

Many want the French government to get more involved. Its big health initiative in 2000 called for cutting the number of people who are obese or overweight by 20% by 2005. That didn’t happen.

Consumer and child advocates want more radical measures. They aren’t impressed by a new law that requires food advertisements to include a four-prong message promoting healthy eating. (At the movies, candy bars are sold with a reminder to eat your vegetables.) They’re lobbying the National Assembly to prohibit all ads for unhealthful foods during children’s programming and to make government “guidelines” for school lunchrooms compulsory.

Jean-Michel Cohen, France’s most famous diet doctor, is among those who believe that only the government is powerful enough to counter global food companies that have been flooding supermarkets with sugary and fatty foods.

For him, the problem can be summed up in a container of yogurt:

“Ten years ago, we had 100 varieties of yogurt in France, and now we have 1,000,” said Cohen, who has written five nutrition books (the latest is a novel about dieting) and sold 1.3 million copies. “To win over their competitors, food companies keep adding fat and sugar to the yogurt.” The container that had 60 calories 10 years ago now has 75, he said, adding, “If you imagine that all foods are growing this way, it’s a problem.”

The supersizing of the French is putting unusual demands on some businesses.

Hospitals have had to get MRI machines and gurneys big enough for obese people. Pharmacies, usually restrained in the variety of brands they offer, devote shelves and shelves to products to help the French shed inches. Euromonitor reports that in 2006, for example, the French spent 15 times more per capita than Americans on creams, gels and other potions that promise to reduce cellulite.

As the French silhouette expands, so grow the clothes. Perhaps it doesn’t seem that way looking at international clothing labels, where typically a French size “extra large” is a U.S. “medium.” But now French manufacturers are resizing. A French 42, equivalent to U.S. size 12, would have been a 44 or 46 (size 14-16) a few years ago, according to a recent article in the business magazine L’Expansion.

The biggest sector of the French fashion industry to grow since 2000, in fact, has not been “haute couture” but rather the “plus size” market, L’Expansion reported. La Redoute, one of France’s largest chains, said almost one-third of its clients wear size 46 to 52 (U.S. sizes 16-22).

Still, large sizes aren’t easy to come by throughout France, even in big cities. Walking into a “plus size” store on Paris’ famous Rue de Rivoli the other day felt like entering a speakeasy during Prohibition. The window display of Etre Ronde en Couleurs (To Be Plump in Colors) displayed the usual fall offerings -- crisp pantsuits in gray and back-to-school jeans. Inside, it took awhile to catch on that the vast offering from chiffon evening dresses to overcoats and bathing suits was not for the typical paper-thin Parisian. Rather, sizes ranged from 42 to 56.

“Customers come in and say, ‘Finally, I found you,’ ” said Carole Bonneroy, the chief saleswoman and a size 52. Women come from all over France for the original designs and moderate prices. Many, Bonneroy said, are tired of snide comments from saleswomen elsewhere who gawk at their girth.

“In France, being thin is an obsession and many women are careful about what they eat, choose to deprive themselves and drink a lot of tea,” Bonneroy said.

But when you gain weight, “it’s because you eat more. That doesn’t make you a bad person, just bigger.”

Achrene Sicakyuz and Devorah Lauter in The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.