French people getting fatter…c’est la vie?

The results of a health study indicate that 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 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 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.

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.

Fraternité but not for larger-sized 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.”

Gabrielle Deydier wrote a book on her experience of job discrimination, harassment and insults about her body size. Learn more about Gabrielle and her experiences at these links in English or in French.

Blogger “Your Fat Friend” writes anonymously and eloquently about the social realities of life as what she describes as being “a very fat person”.

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 health study had a low income level. Faced with economic difficulties, choosing low-cost brands might seem like a smart choice, but these foods may have lower nutritional quality and higher quantities of sugar, fat and additives.

Stores are ready to serve up these temptations to a receptive public. One insidious tactic is ‘buy one and get a 70% reduction on the second identical product’. My feeling is that this not only encourages people to buy more, but probably eat more (given the limited storage space in the average compact French kitchen), than they might ordinarily do.

It’s possible to squint at basic nutritional information on product packaging, but as a shopper I rarely see people doing this. For better or worse, practically everyone on this planet seems to have an attraction to sugar, salt and fat – French people included.  So we have yet another French paradox. A country known for fashion, delicious calorie-laden food and drink, yet a rising obesity level.