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France is often looked to as a counter-example to the obesity epidemic in the United States, even though to be sure obesity is swelling in France too. Still, the obesity rates there are far below those of the United States and other European countries. As Eleanor Beardsley reports, many believe it's French culinary traditions that have protected most people from weight gain for so long.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Obesity is on the rise in France, but you'd think it'd be a lot worse. The shops and outdoor markets are full of pastries, meats and cheeses and people are always talking about food. But it turns out that it's not only what the French eat but how they eat that seems to make a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD SPEAKING FRENCH)

BEARDSLEY: From the start, French children are taught to respect the ritual of mealtimes and the beauty of a well-balanced diet. At this public daycare center in Paris, two-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. Today's menu features grilled leg of lamb and cauliflower au gratin, all freshly prepared in the day care's own kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD SPEAKING FRENCH)

BEARDSLEY: And 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 is an obesity specialist. He says the French obsession with food is exactly what has protected them against obesity.

JEAN MARC CATHELINE: (Through Translator) The French know how to cook and prepare food, and that is what has shielded them from obesity. 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.

BEARDSLEY: But 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 U.S., the French government isn't taking it lightly.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The national obesity plan includes hip television adds encouraging people to eat the right foods, take the stairs, and not to snack between meals. Vending machines have been removed from schools. Catheline says like in the U.S., obesity rates in France are higher in rural areas, where people drive everywhere. And obesity is also a bigger problem among the poor.

MARC CATHELINE: (Through Translator) 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.

BEARDSLEY: 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.

LEA BRESIER: When I was in the U.S., everybody, 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.

BEARDSLEY: But that un-French habit of eating anywhere, anytime, seems to be catching on here, especially with young people. It's not uncommon to see teenagers drinking out of liter bottles of Coke 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 two young children the way they grew up, with regular family mealtimes. Tonight, the Dubois are having ham and a puree blended from fresh vegetables. Bertrand Dubois worries that American pop culture is changing French eating habits.

BERTRAND DUBOIS: (Through Translator) We're copying what we see on American television shows. 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.

BEARDSLEY: 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 Dr. Catheline. Knowing how to cook might not keep you from being overweight, he says, but it will keep you from being obese. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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