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The Los Angeles Times this morning reports that obesity is becoming an issue in France, and men, women and children there seem to be getting heavier – leading many parents, physicians and government officials to try and figure out how to reverse the problem before it gets worse.

“The problem is nowhere near as bad as it is in the United States, where 65% of the population has serious weight problems, or in parts of southern Europe such as Spain and Portugal, where the vaunted Mediterranean diet hasn't helped the one-third of the children who are more than just plump,” the Times writes. “But people here have gotten away from the concept of food as a luxury eaten in modest quantities. Bread, for instance, has always been a staple, especially when people didn't have enough money for meat or cheese. Now the French can have all three -- and do.

“The lifestyle of the wealthy West has also caught up with France. Working parents increasingly don't have time to shop at outdoor markets and instead use processed foods, often frozen, from the supermarket. And there is more snacking, less savoring going on.”

The issue in France is much the same as in the US – people eat too much, too often and get too little exercise. But there are other shifts taking place as well – for example, a growing number of French women don't know how to cook, which means that they tend to rely on processed foods and snacking, which doesn’t bode well for the French waistline.

And there are other consequences. “Hospitals have had to get MRI machines and gurneys big enough for obese people,” the Times writes. “Pharmacies, usually restrained in the variety of brands they offer, devote shelves and shelves to products to help the French shed inches. Euromonitor reports that in 2006, for example, the French spent 15 times more per capita than Americans on creams, gels and other potions that promise to reduce cellulite.

“As the French silhouette expands, so grow the clothes. Perhaps it doesn't seem that way looking at international clothing labels, where typically a French size ‘extra large’ is a U.S. ‘medium.’ But now French manufacturers are resizing. A French 42, equivalent to U.S. size 12, would have been a 44 or 46 (size 14-16) a few years ago, according to a recent article in the business magazine L'Expansion.”
KC's View:
: It all started, I suspect, when a McDonald’s opened on the Champs-Élysées. It’s been all downhill from there. (Actually, it is one of the nicest McDonald’s I’ve ever been to, with a little café – but it also sells burgers and fries and all that other stuff.) Now there seems like there are a number of burger joints on that most wonderful of avenues, which makes it just a little bit less wonderful.

What’s really interesting about this story is that it seems like the notion of French people never getting fat has long been a fiction. After all, it notes that best-selling book, “French Women Don't Get Fat” had to carry a different title in France - "These French Women Who Don't Get Fat: How Do They Do It?" (Which almost sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” line…)

The shame would be if the French food culture were to somehow dissipate because of these concerns. It seems to me – and maybe this is wishful thinking – that we ought to be able to eat well and eat smart. And that food companies ought to lead this charge, not resist it.