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Sad when even the French have an obesity problem. Those stylish Parisians seemed intent on avoiding the American plague but they have been seduced by McDonalds and decreased time for fresh food and the preparation and consumption needed for true French cuisine. So sad, and yet so predictable as the modern life pressures erode traditional values and habits.
France Battles a Problem That Grows and Grows: Fat
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
ROUBAIX, France - In a cold, stark municipal hall, 8-year-old Hatim sat silently as the pediatrician passed judgment. At about 4 feet 6 inches and 95 pounds, the boy was declared overweight and in danger of becoming obese.
The morning pastry would have to go. So would the Oasis soft drinks and the after-school Nutella on bread. Meat and potatoes would be allowed, but only once a day. A snack could include milk or cheese, but not both. Baguettes were fine, but where were the veggies?
"23.6 body mass index," Dr. Corinne Fassler announced. "You have to raise your consciousness. You have to find a sport you like. But if you go to the swimming pool, don't go to the vending machine for chips."
The French are getting fatter, and Jan. 7 was National Weighing Day for the country's children. A voluntary army of hundreds of pediatricians fanned out to more than 80 cities to weigh, measure, interrogate and enlighten.
Roubaix is an economically depressed industrial town in northern France, the fattest region in the country. Fifty-one percent of the population here is overweight or obese, compared with the national average of 42 percent, according to the most recent national figures in 2003.
The trend line is most significant among children. While adult obesity is rising about 6 percent annually, among children the national rate of growth is 17 percent. At that rate, the French could be - quelle horreur - as fat as Americans by 2020. (More than 65 percent of the population in the United States is considered overweight or obese.)
Just a few years ago, obesity in France was a subject relegated to morning television talk shows and women's magazines. Now the issue has become political.
When Jean-Marie Le Guen, a doctor and Socialist member of Parliament, began introducing bills on how to stop what he calls France's "epidemic," some of his colleagues dismissed him as a radical fringe nuisance. Now he is considered a pioneer.
"It used to be little talked about, and when it was, it was the domain of women complaining that they had put on a little weight," said Dr. Le Guen, who has written a book, "Obesity: The New French Sickness." The sickness, he predicted, will be "one of the important themes" of the Socialists in the campaign for president next year.
Last September, France banned soda and snack selling vending machines from public schools. The law also banned misleading television and print food advertising and imposed a 1.5 percent tax on the advertising budgets of food companies that did not encourage healthy eating. Schools have been urged to provide students with a half-hour of physical exercise a day.
But the backlash from the food industry and a lack of political will has made it impossible to impose changes in advertising. More drastic legislation was rejected by Parliament, including health warnings on the packages of unhealthy foods, much like alcohol and cigarette warnings; a proposal to force restaurants to display nutrition and calorie information on their menus; and an outright ban on television advertisements for unhealthy products.
With its universal health care coverage, the French government is also interested in cutting medical costs associated with obesity and diabetes. A recent advertising campaign by the National Collective of Associations of the Obese, an educational and lobbying organization, shows a markedly obese nude woman under the headline "Obesity Kills." (An estimated 55,000 people in France die of obesity-related illnesses every year.)
Some of the reasons for the increase in obesity are those that plague the United States and much of Europe: the lure of fast food and prepared foods, the ubiquity of unhealthy snacks and sedentary lives.
McDonald's is more profitable in France than anywhere else in Europe. Sales have increased 42 percent over the past five years. Some 1.2 million French, or 2 percent of the population, eat there every day.
There has also been a breakdown in the classical French tradition of mealtime as a family ritual so disciplined and honored that opening the refrigerator between meals for a child was a crime worthy of punishment. A side effect is a blame-the-mom syndrome, as fewer mothers have time to shop at markets every day or two for fresh foods and instead put more prepared dishes on the table.
Findus, the frozen food giant best known for its breaded, frozen fish filets, filmed French people eating over a period of time and was shocked by the results.
Contrary to the myth that the French spend hours sitting around the table savoring small portions of several courses, the films showed them eating in front of their television sets, while on the telephone and even alone. In fact, the average French meal, which 25 years ago lasted 88 minutes, is just 38 minutes today.
With all the awareness of obesity, there is also a countertrend. The French may have begun to embrace the large woman. Six years ago, the French government declared the model and actress Laetitia Casta (5 feet 7, 120 pounds) the new "Marianne," the symbol of the republic on statues and public buildings.
But in his fashion show last October, the designer John Galliano stunned the audience by putting fat women on the runway alongside string-bean-thin models.
And last month, millions of television viewers voted and chose Magalie Bonneau, a 19-year-old student who is 5 feet 1 inch and weighs 165 pounds, as the winner of the hit talent and reality show "Star Academy." Libération called her the "icon of 'real people.' " A cover story in the magazine Télé Cable Satellite referred to her as the new "heavyweight" of the channel TF1.
She managed to lose 29 pounds during the rigors of the competition, and attributes her victory to her big voice, not her big build. Not that she thinks her size hurt. "Audiences are getting used to seeing plump girls," she said. "A barrier has been crossed."