French Take Note of a Growing Trend: Obesity

The rate of obesity in France has doubled in recent years, to 12 percent — a figure approaching U.S. fat stats. A nation once eternally trim must now rethink its approach to eating and even dress sizes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's stay in Europe for a moment to update a popular belief about France. The belief is that French women do not get fat.

The journalist Adam Gopnik once wrote that Parisians were incredibly fit, even though when he went to a health club, everybody was sitting around the pool instead of swimming in it. Apparently, that's changing. In recent years, the rate of obesity doubled among the French, who are now catching up with Americans, which explains why the government decided to put warning labels on food.

Anita Elash gives us the skinny from Paris.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

ANITA ELASH: There are thousands of people at this outdoor food market in the 15 Tahondismos(ph), Paris every Sunday morning. The displays are mouthwatering. Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, but there are also pyramids of cheese, spit-roasted chickens, and piles of smoked sausage. If you can dry your eye away from the food, you'll notice something else. More and more of the customers are overweight. This man is waiting to buy a smoked ham for Sunday dinner.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) I'm a bit heavy myself. But I think the problem is with how we teach our children. We drive them to school, we don't let them walk anymore. The amount of calories they use is a lot smaller than the amount they eat.

ELASH: That's pretty much what the experts would say. Everyone in France, even the children, spends more time watching TV and drinking soda these days. But that's just part of the story. Arnold Badabai(ph) is an obesity researcher at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Paris.

Mr. ARNOLD BADABAI (Obesity Researcher, Hotel Dieu Hospital, Paris): We are losing the regularity of the meal, and this leaves to an increase in energy intake.

ELASH: Traditionally, the French sit down to two or three square meals a day with their family and friends. No snacking in between. Eating that way, French women never outgrew their size six pencil skirts. But no one has time for a full meal anymore, and fast food is taking over.

Mr. BADABAI: So I think that the traditional way is satisfy three dimension of the eating behavior: which is eating for nutrients, eating for pleasure, eating with the other people. And this is what the new way of life is losing. I think this three dimension of the eating behavior, which are necessary for a good equilibrium.

ELASH: And there's more. The French used to be champion drinkers and smokers. It relieved stress and kept them thin. But they replaced those bad habits with a new stress reliever, eating junk food. For French women, that often means a new kind of stress, trying to find clothes that fit. Clothing sizes in most fashionable French shops stop at size 14. But nearly 40 percent of French women are bigger than that. That's where Karen Hansen comes in.

Ms. KAREN HANSEN (Co-owner, Cazak): (Speaking foreign language)

ELASH: She's the blue-eyed, blond, and size 16, co-owner of Cazak, a high-end clothing shop just off the Champs-Elysees. It specializes in sizes 14 to 26, bright colors, and the latest fashions. She's had to scope the world to find clothes for her shop because almost no one in France designs for large women.

Ms. HANSEN: The French have a very conflictual relationship with being overweight. And this is also why you have; you have books like "French Women Don't Get Fat," I think that's the title of the book. And, well numbers show that they do. But it's like if you don't see the problem - then if you kind of close your eyes then maybe the problem will go away.

ELASH: Like so many French women, Hansen is trying to lose weight. But like more and more women in France, she's not trying very hard.

Ms. HANSEN: I look good. So being a size 14 or a size 16, I still look good. So now you make me blush. Or maybe I did it myself. I don't know. A la la.

ELASH: For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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