Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Are the french too obsessed with weight? !

The results of a large study by L'Inserm (Institute national de la santé et de la recherche medicale) looking into the relationship between nutrition, health and diet found that nearly 7 out of 10 women and 1 in 2 men (!) in France wanted to lose weight, even if their BMI was in the normal reference range (19-25).

The study found that some women begin dieting from 10 years of age and that 30% of woman have already tried 5 different diets. A further 9% will have tried at least 10 diets.

On closer analysis of the different diets which were tried, such as high protein and calorie restriction, the research found (and no surprises here!) that the best long term results were achieved by following a varied and balanced diet, watching the portion sizes and avoiding snacks.

The study highlighted that the risk of excessive dieting includes nutrition deficiencies, distorted body image and eating disorders.

France has one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe, along with the Italians and the Swiss.  It is also the first European country to notice its childhood obesity rates levelling off, which is linked to a fantastic initiative dating from 2004 where, amongst other changes, soft drinks and snack machines were removed from over 50% of colleges and lycees.

These initiatives are good ones and it is so important from a public health perspective to provide an environment that encourages people to make healthy food choices and be as physically active as possible.

Yet, as always there is a balance and as an expat living in the ile de france region, I do feel that the French (in general) are overly obsessed with weight.  People here can be very judgemental, direct and quick to pass critical comments on other people’s weight and I have spent some time wondering why!  Is it because being overweight is seen as a loss of control (mon dieu!) or because it is seen as a sign that France is becoming ‘anglicised’ and closer to the relaxed, corrupt English/American style of living (double mon dieu!).

My lovely elderly neighbour was very quick to tell an acquaintance of mine that her teenage daughter was being a bit ‘grosse’.  My equally lovely mother-in-law weighs herself every day without fail and monitors very gram gained or lost with eagle like precision.

Here’s an example:

You go out for a girly night with anglo saxon friends and mention over dinner that you are worried you might have gained a few kilos recently.  These friends will usually rush to tell you that you look lovely/don’t appear to have gained any weight/encourage you to have another glass or wine or dessert.

The same scenario with your french girl friends?  As soon as you mention you might have gained some weight, they will look you up and down checking for wobbly thighs and jelly bellies.  They will then either tell you that you don’t need to worry or that yes, you’ve gained some weight, are getting a bit fat and should stop drinking so much wine and skip the dessert.

The social pressure is on!  It’s also incredibly difficult to find sizes above a 42 (size 14) in most of the clothes shops and asking one of the immaculately dressed, super slender assistants for a larger size is terrifying experience......

With this additional social pressure, does France possibly have a higher percentage of eating disorders?? Statistics show that France has an estimated 1-3% of young women estimated to be anorexic, 5% bulimic and 11% with compulsive eating disorders.  This is not necessarily higher than other countries, but does support the theory that French women may not necessarily have the balanced attitude to food that we might think they have.

There are at least 5 ‘lollipop’ ladies in my village - emaciated, way too skinny and a huge head sitting on a stick like frame, who make me shudder whenever I pass them.  I wonder a) if they really understand just how much damage they are doing to themselves and b) the potential damage they might be doing to their children.  The statistics show that children are more at risk of developing eating disorders if their parents themselves are over preoccupied with their own weight and appearance.

Ultimately (and unfortunately) we are all judged to some extent on our appearance and in France there is a lot of social pressure to be ‘slim’. However, what is more important is developing a healthy attitude to food and nutrition.  Yes, it is unhealthy to  be too overweight, but it is equally unhealthy to be whippet thin and weight obsessed.  Harsh criticism and unkind words are more likely to make the sobbing recipient reach for a comforting slice of ‘tarte aux pommes’! Honesty tempered with gentleness and sensitivity might be more effective. Research demonstrates time and time again that education, support and motivation are the best tools in the battle against obesity.

As always a nifty little recipe and this tuna recipe is taken from the fantastic Ottolenghi cookbook.  I served it with:

Spicy tomato salsa (4-5 large chopped tomatoes, 1 finely chopped red onion, 1/2 fresh chopped and deseeded chili, grated zest and juice of 1 lime, chopped coriander and sea salt)

Green bean, chick pea and feta salad (steam beans till just tender.   Dress with olive oil and raspberry vinegar.  Mix in drained tin of chickpeas and some chopped feta.  Scatter over chopped fresh mint and parsley)

Seared Tuna with pistachio crust

Serves 4

4 tuna steaks
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp dijon mustard
120g shelled pistachio nuts
grated zest of 1 lemon

Heat oven as high as possible.  Brush tuna steaks with olive oil and quickly sear for 30 seconds each side in a frying or griddle pan.  Allow to cool slightly then brush all over generously with mustard.

Put pistachio nuts in a blender and blend until you have a fine breadcrumb like texture.  Add lemon zest and seasoning.

Cover tuna steaks with the nut mixture.

Roast in the oven for 4-5 minutes.  (Timing is variable depending on how you like your tuna, so feel free to reduce/increase cooking time as necessary).



  1. Great article. I am a dietitian living in SW France (Pau) and I think the "weight obsession" is a bit less here in Pau than in Paris.
    Paris, like New York City-has more emphasis on appearance-thus more weight obsession.
    However the French, like in many 'domains' are quite disciplined...and this discipline translates over to the 'obsession' with keeping their weight in control.
    Oh...the lollypop ladies sound scary!!
    Merci encore.

  2. Thank you Mary!! Would love to catch up with you and find out more about how you are finding practising in France. Please do email me your contact details at charlottedebeugny@nutritioninparis.com Looking forward to hearing from you! Charlotte