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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
How the French manage to stay slim

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondant

French cheese
The French may eat a lot of cheese, but most manage to stay slim
As Britain and other countries in Europe worry about ever-growing levels of obesity among adults and children, could we learn something from our neighbours, the French?

Despite a diet heavy on foie gras, creamy sauces and cheese, just 11% of French adults are obese compared with 22% in Britain and a whopping third of Americans.

The French live longer, too, and have lower death rates from heart disease. So what's their secret - and can the French really keep it up in the face of their ever-growing appetite for fast food and fizzy drinks?

Lunchtime in Paris, and the de Bodinat family are sitting down for a family lunch with two of their daughters.

Their mother, Clemence, serves a healthy meal of white fish with a tomato and cucumber salad, with a plain yoghurt for pudding. The fridge is devoid of fizzy drinks, and on the table sits a carafe of ordinary water.

She says: "I am a mother of four children, and I have to say that they do not have sweets, they do not have sugar, they do not have sodas - you can open the cupboard here and you will see no temptation at all," she smiles.

French cuisine is made up of very small portion sizes, so even if we serve you seven courses, you won't feel bloated
Richard Robe, chef
But she adds: "They're like all kids - if you let them, they'd sit in front of the TV eating sweets and chocolate all day!"

Family trips to McDonalds are limited to twice a year. Yet when the two girls went to visit Scotland, Clemence says their eating habits changed rapidly.

"The two girls went to boarding school there for three months - and they wrote me a letter to say 'Mummy, you have to send us sweets. Mars, Twix, everything.

"Usually, they never have them but they didn't want to be the odd ones out because everyone else was eating them, so I went into a shop, bought a huge bag and I sent it to them, and they were very happy."

Justine de Bodinat, 14, slim and seemingly unresentful of a home life without access to Coke and sweets, remembers Scotland well: "It was very different from home, because we're used to eating lots of organic food here.

"But in Scotland we had a snack, then teatime, then a snack, a lot of chips and pasta, and fish fingers." And did she put on any weight while abroad? "Yes!" she admits with a laugh.

Portion size 'key'

Most French are not quite so disciplined about what they eat, but many do believe that sitting down twice a day for family meals when possible leads to better eating habits in children, and as a result, healthier adults.

Those French who do worry about their weight can always go and see a nutritionist, courtesy of the French health service.

Burger
Fast food is growing in popularity
Nutritionist Dr Francoise L'Hermite says the French secret to staying slim is to do exactly as Clemence and her family do - make sure you sit down with friends or family for a meal, eat three times a day at regular intervals, don't snack, don't eat in front of the television, and finally - eat slowly and savour both the food and the company.

"For France, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation," she says. "From an Anglo-Saxon point of view, food is just fuel to give energy to your muscles. If you have no pleasure in it, you are breaking all the rules of eating."

But what about all those French who tuck in to steak and chips, with lashings of red wine, followed by cheese and crème caramel for lunch?

British chef Richard Robe, who works at Taillevent, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris, says the secret is all in the portion size.

"French cuisine is made up of very small portion sizes, so even if we serve you seven courses, you won't feel bloated, and it's the equivalent of maybe two courses in other places."

He says it's easier to eat more healthily in France than England because there are more markets and it is easier to find fresh produce.

Anglo-Saxon eating habits

The film Supersize Me, in which an American journalist spends a month eating nothing but McDonalds, and which shows the fast food industry in a rather less than flattering light, recently arrived in France.

Parisians gasped as they saw some of the larger-than-life derrieres in the film.

American researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently spent some time researching why the French remain so much slimmer than Americans. After intensive study, they came to a remarkable conclusion.

It was because the French ate less. So maybe that's the secret after all....

However recent figures have shown that the French are gradually getting bigger as they take on Anglo-Saxon eating habits, welcoming fast food outlets and snatching a sandwich at their desk. And who do they blame for that? Why, America!


SEE ALSO:
Experts call for EU obesity plan
27 May 04  |  Health
Obesity 'becoming top US killer'
10 Mar 04  |  Americas
'Cultured' French live longer
05 Jun 00  |  UK News


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