Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Where have all the fat people gone?

I see life through nutritionally tinted glasses. My food and nutrition radar is always there whether I am at work or at home, I can’t help it at this point. On the other hand, when my husband has an observation that has to do with food or weight, it’s rare. I tend to think if he notices something, it has to be glaring and most likely true. On our first day in Paris, we checked into our lovely left bank hotel, had some lunch and walked toward the Tuilerie Gardens. There was a small carnival set up we thought the boys would enjoy. We strolled through the carnival with the Louvre in the background and Eiffel tower within sight. Marc turned to me and said “do you see what I’m seeing? Everyone is in shape, nobody is overweight.” I looked around, always determined to find the exception but he was right. There were no fat people and we were at a carnival!

When we returned to the hotel room I wanted to see if there was evidence to support our observation. Sure enough, the health statistics ranking obesity by country lists the U.S. as #1 with 30.6% obese. France is way down on the list with 9.4% obese. While this is a big difference, I would have suspected it was even greater. These statistics are for obesity, perhaps for merely overweight the gap is indeed larger. Now, this is not necessary news. Mireille Guilano wrote “French Women Don’t Get Fat” and a follow up cookbook on the topic. Her book focuses on French women but seems to also apply to men and children too. And I was last in France 5 years ago and saw these same thin French people but for some reason on this last trip found this more noticeable.

As we travelled around sightseeing, I made a few observations:

1. There was no eating on the go. Nobody was walking down the street with a smoothie,sandwichor even coffee. Aside from people carrying groceries or picnicking in parks there was no food to be seen outside.

2. Meals are leisurely and manners matter. I may have been minding others’ manners as I was traveling with kids and reminding them to put their napkins on their laps but there was a difference in how people eat. A sandwich is held in the bag it comes in and nibbled on. People put their utensils down and talk versus the speed eating so common here.

3. Presentation is everything. If our fruit was presented in the manner blueberries were boxed at the fruit markets in Paris, everyone would fight over them. I expected tiny portions and we didn’t necessary find them but food, even at casual places, was presented in a manner that you couldn’t help but savor it.

4. Many people are biking and walking in the course of the day. I didn’t see a lot of biking for exercise or the number of runners as I see in Central Park yet there seemed to be more general activity.

It seems Americans don’t get fat in France either. We ate more loosely, had wine almost every night (ok every night) and exercised less than we do at home and didn’t gain a pound. I mentioned some of my theories in a Facebook post. I was wondering what others’ thought and whether my observations rang true. One of my friends said “sweetheart, they’re too busy smoking 60 Gitanes a day to eat.”
Have you noticed anything similar in your travels? What do you think accounts for this? Is it eating habits? Smoking? For extra credit we noticed tourists from 2 other countries were large, like the Americans, what countries do you think these were?


  1. I totally agree. The French have such great attention to detail when it come to food. They have great respect for food in general, particularly when it comes to using quality ingredients. Love Mireille Guilano's books.

  2. I'm Italian, my husband is French, his parents live in Switzerland, we used to live in Spain, now we live in Mexico (I know, it's a mess).

    First, I'm pretty sure that Mexicans are more frequently overweight than Americans (if not to the same extreme in individuals). A headline in the newspaper last week said 70% or so are overweight or obese. I have definitely noticed that on the street, even in Mexico City. Everyone is at least a little overweight. The children are heading down a very dangerous road. The government is scared and has begun banning junk food in schools plus making PE mandatory.

    As for Europe, I think that overweight is much less common in the cities. Most tourists go to Paris, Rome, Geneva, London, etc. If you go to the towns, you will have no problem finding overweight people in Europe and it's not uncommon in the middle-aged. Again, I think that a big part is that they just don't get AS BIG as Americans.

    And I don't know who has looked at the comparability of statistical procedures, but I'd be shocked if the British and Australians aren't right up there with Americans.

    So, yes, the Europeans are healthier for now. But they too are turning to computers instead of shovels, MacDo (as they call McD's) instead of bread with a bite of cheese. Obesity is a world-wide issue. Let's hope the Europeans can do what we failed in - reverse the trend before it becomes an epidemic.

    (sorry for the treatise, this comes up A LOT in conversation at our house!)


  3. Do you see a lot of fast food places there? That is the big reason Americans are so high on the statistics for obesity. I do food safety audits, and some restaurants I audit are fast food chains. I do not eat fast food, but I am always amazed at how much is consumed....

    Take care,