On the French Front: Today’s French Kids are Getting Fat

Aug 21, 2009 by

DSC_6479THE ONLY TIME FRENCH KIDS would eat outside of meals or official snack time, traditionally, would be when they were picking fruit or nuts found along their path or in the family orchard or vineyard, as my little darling is doing here while visiting her French grandparents this summer. –photo by Anna Migeon

I just got back from 17 days in France visiting my husband’s family. It had been three years since we’d been there.

And yes, we could see a difference, much as I hate to admit it. Fat French kids, once few and far between, are now plentiful. We’ve still got them beat, though: only about one in six French kids is overweight versus one in three in the US. We see more overweight adults, too, though it’s not yet at the magnitude of Americans.

My casual observation tells me the French are maintaining the same seemingly detrimental eating habits they’ve always had:

  1. Loads of white bread
  2. A steady flow of desserts (always with meals)
  3. Prodigious quantities of cheese

Based on my observations of our French relatives, they also seem to be generally keeping up certain good traditional habits that Americans would do well to emulate:

  1. They don’t nibble and snack at all hours. Eating is a deliberate, focused event. If somebody’s eating, it’s either meal time or snack time.
  2. They don’t eat in front of the TV.
  3. They eat a smaller variety of unhealthy foods and a greater variety of healthy whole foods (vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, poultry). Instead of just chicken, for example, they also eat duck, quail and guinea fowl. They eat rabbit. They even like organ meats, including liver.

Another observation I made of a continued good tradition, not only among my relatives, but all over France, was far more home vegetables gardens than in the U.S. Wherever there is space, people are growing their own fresh produce. That means some better tasting, more nutritious food. It also promotes a more personal connection to healthy food for their children.

Some changes I noticed, though, might be responsible for tipping the scales in favor of expanding waistlines in France.

Though I did not personally observe any extra-meal munching by our own family members, this insidious trend has apparently taken root among some French people. We can only infer it has snuck in from the fact that French weight-loss-for-kids author Dr. Vincent Boggio targets it: avoid snacking at all hours, he prescribes. Limit eating to meal times and set snack times.

American influence is continuing to grow there, too, for better or worse. More advertisements are written in English than ever, indicating its “coolness.” A stronger pop youth culture, with its preoccupation with TV, computers and video games, is evident. There are far more TV channels now than in the 90s when we lived there. I even heard that school is becoming ever less engaging and less challenging, with lowering standards so that a greater percentage of students can “succeed” in getting their high school diploma.

As the French follow us down the paths of least resistance, they are responding, like us, to the ever-insistent stimuli supplied by junk food marketers. McDonalds, or McDo, as they call it, is said to be the biggest franchise in France now. The floodgates have opened. When we first lived in France, we had to drive an hour to find one.

The most significant factor in the French shift toward junk food and obesity may be the discovery of Coke. From 2002 to 2004, European sales of Coke rose 37 percent. I predict that sales grew even more from 2006, when I had last stepped foot on French soil, to 2009, based on personal observation.

I noticed a lot more “coca” drinking among family members than three years ago. It now joins apéritifs like champagne, Pastis or homemade walnut wine and fruit juice, served with finger food, for the traditional French appetizers brought out before a dinner with guests. I heard comments by different parents about how much “coca” their kids were drinking these days. Teens seem to prefer it to alcohol, and I’m far from convinced that’s a good thing.

Therein a major shift from the generation of my children’s French grandparents. My mother-in-law had never even tasted Coke at age 55. At the time (1989), I had never met anyone who’d never tried Coke. This last visit there, my husband’s aunt, in her 70s, told us she’d still never tried it, though she said her grandsons guzzled it like addicts.

Soft drinks are the top item by volume that we Americans put in our mouths, and I challenge you to find any American of any age who can tell you that Coke hasn’t touched his lips. Is it any wonder we’re fat?

Hard economic times may also be playing a role in the fattening up of the French and their children, I suspect. Stress promotes weight gain. Some folks may be working longer hours to make more money or secure their jobs. More moms may have to work. Overall, people may have less time and energy for cooking.

The money squeeze also means relying on cheaper foods like potatoes, bread, rice,  pasta and legumes, which are less nutrient- dense and more fattening, instead of higher quality options: meat, fish, fruit and vegetables.

One of our French relatives told me they don’t eat more fruit and vegetables because they are expensive, in spite of her fear about gaining weight. As I told her, as unsympathetic as it sounds (I knew she wasn’t all that hard up): “That’s normal, because fruit and veggies have more value than those starches that fill you up but are actually detrimental to your health.”

I guess the more bad options and influences we all have, the more we have to exercise our freedom and be informed.

May the French, as well as us Americans, in that space between stimulus and response, chose their response. We all can find freedom from bad health and obesity in that opportunity to choose.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Victor Frankl

Coming next: Dr. Vincent Boggio’s recommendations for losing weight for French kids

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 21 August 2009 / All rights reserved