French people getting fatter…c’est la vie?

The results of a new health study are weighing in and apparently an increasing number of French people are becoming “en surpoids” (beyond just pleasantly plump). This is news in France for a number of reasons. French health officials are concerned by the latest research that indicates an estimated 14 million adults are considered overweight and 6,5 million obese.

That’s a whopping total of 20 million people who will probably never parade down the runaway at a Chanel or Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show.

According to the study, conducted over a 12-year period, the average French person has gained 3,1 kilos and their stomachs have increased by 4,7 cm.

The study, ObEpi 2009, was financed by Roche Pharmaceuticals and overseen by Dr Marie-Aline Charles, an epidemiologist at Inserm and by Pr Arnaud Basdevant, a nutritional specialist at Hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière-Université in Paris.

The study also notes that an obese person has 12 times the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol than a person of ‘normal’ weight. This point aggravates existing concerns about the already over-burdened French health care system.

In a country where external appearances do matter a great deal, and doctors tend to regard excess kilos as a disturbing abnormality, the label of being obese has negative implications.

Shortly after a news article on the study was published at the French news site, a reader was quick to post a valid yet somewhat defensive observation in the Comments section that ‘people who are not obese also have serious health issues!’

Re-education time at the pool. Photo: Francois Guillot, AFP

The French government is taking an active role to promote exercise, healthy eating and in some cases, the ‘re-education‘ of overweight people. In this photo, a teenager does supervised exercises in a pediatric health center in the Paris region.

This news photo offers an example of fatness in daily life…”Une personne obèse se promène dans une rue de Caen.” (An obese person walks down the street in Caen). It’s unclear how French people are supposed to react – except perhaps to feel that being fat is the ultimate nightmare?

‘Shocking’ photo of French fat person. Photo: Mychele Daniau AFP/Archivesphotos

Fraternité but not for fat people?

Dr. Charles commented on how overweight French women face discrimination in the workplace: “Social discrimination towards obese and overweight women creates a barrier against their career advancement to higher positions.”

But large-size French people are fighting back against discrimination and there are a number of web sites dedicated to self-acceptance, human rights and updates about reforms in employment, transport, health care, etc.

Allegro Fortissimo
For the past 20 years, the non-profit Allegro Fortissimo has waged war against discrimination against fat people and promoted self-acceptance. For example, urging the French transit system to offer seating that accommodates large-sized people.

Pulpe Club
A site for information, social networking and activities for overweight people. The section “Actu” has stories from people who share their personal thoughts on body size and issues of self-identity and acceptance, cultural issues and health (French only).

My take on this: coming from California, where is it against the law to discriminate on the basis of weight or body size, I support efforts to end discriminatory hiring practices. But prejudices against body weight and appearance exist in any country, including the politically correct U.S., and it takes a lot more than legislation to change them.

Eat, drink and be merry?

French people still shop at the traditional open air markets, but modern supermarkets are everywhere. Huge supermarkets, the  size of a small shopping mall, are particularly popular in the French countryside where levels of obesity are highest.

Cassoulet in a can – la vie moderne

22% of people deemed obese in the ObEpi 2009 health study had a low income level. But the current economic downturn is motivating people at all income levels to save money by purchasing food in volume or choosing low-cost brands which may have lower nutritional quality and higher quantities of sugar, fat and additives. And stores are ready to serve up these temptations to a receptive public.

All the major supermarket chains in France promote healthy food choices via their consumer marketing efforts and show recipes and nutritional information at their web sites. There are affordable branded lines of organic (“bio”) food along with food from equitable commerce producers. For better or worse, practically everyone on this planet seems to have an irresistible attraction to sugar, salt and fat – French people included.

The good news – love comes in all sizes

According to another study, French teenagers still like to chow down on traditional meals such as bouillabaisse, choucroute and all those stinky, delicious French cheeses. And apparently, French guys like the roundness and curves that results from this gourmet feasting.

The CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) study interviewed 500 adolescents over a three-year period and found that teens relished sit-down family meals. Dorothee Guilhem, an anthropologist at CNRS, said that French teenage boys were very attracted to women who looked as though they had a bonne fourchette (a healthy appetite). “For a woman, it’s normal to have a bit of fat. It’s a sign of good health,” Guilhem quoted a 19-year-old boy as saying.

No McDo in our home

I grew up in the land of McDonald’s, but I have always preferred to cook ‘from scratch’ with fresh ingredients. Today is a holiday, so I enjoyed the chance to make a special lunch of slowly stewed duck legs and vegetables. Yummy comfort food for a sunny but cold day!

So we have yet another French paradox. A country known for body-revealing feminine fashions, delicious calorie-laden food and drink, yet a rising obesity level.

But just writing about this makes me hungry again…how about this recipe for ‘le brownie’??