- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

PARIS — Thirty-two-year-old Karine has dabbled with just about every fad diet around. She has sought the advice of doctors and nutritionists, and sometimes even shed fleeting pounds.

“I’d lose weight,” confessed the hefty, brown-haired office administrator at a recent Weight Watchers session. She refused to disclose her last name. “But then I’d always gain it back again.”

Welcome to the heartaches of a full-figured woman … not living in Phoenix or Philadelphia, but in Paris. The fabled City of Light — and of fabulously stick-thin, baguette-munching women — is no longer coasting on the paradox that it can eat foie gras and wear size 6, too. Like everyone else in the world, the French are getting fat.

Today, roughly 12 percent to 15 percent of adults here are obese, according to national studies. About one of every seven children is either overweight or obese.

So much for “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” the U.S. best seller on the Gallic secrets of small portions and long walks.

“Maybe we’re taking the same road as America, I don’t know,” said Dr. Vincent Boggio, a pediatrician at the Dijon Public Hospital in eastern France. Dr. Boggio has treated hundreds of overweight French children and published a book on the subject.

“What I do know is there are greater numbers of fat children because our society is becoming wealthier, and children are walking less, and being driven more,” he said. “And they’re solicited all the time to eat.”

But France is taking the lead to conquer the battle of the bulge. Soft-drink vending machines were banned from public schools in September in compliance with a law passed by the French parliament. Next year, it will become the first country in Europe to impose mandatory health messages on all television and radio advertisements that promote processed food.

“The French haven’t been complacent,” said Neville Rigby, policy director at the International Obesity Task Force, in London. “They’re ahead of the game in Europe. They’re saying, ‘Look, we don’t want our children to end up like the rest.’”

To be sure, the percentage of overweight French people is still among the lowest in Europe — and certainly bests the United States, where one in three Americans is obese. But at the current pace — obesity is rising at 5 percent or more a year — France is galloping to close the gap by 2020.

“What we’re seeing is that obesity is becoming more frequent, it’s affecting increasingly younger sections of the population and it’s becoming more serious,” said Arnaud Basdevant, head of the nutrition section at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Paris.

Analysts cite plenty of factors shaping the nation’s spreading waistline. Like Americans, French are spending less time exercising and more time in front of their television sets than a generation ago.

Anti-globalization activist Jose Bove may have rammed his tractor into a McDonalds in 1999 to combat “bad food,” but millions of his countrymen are gobbling up massive quantities of cheeseburgers and fries. Indeed, “MacDo” as the French call it, is the largest franchise in France, with more than 1,000 restaurants throughout the country.

“I’d have a Big Mac, sometimes two,” reminisces 42-year-old Crystelle Roux about the good old days of unbridled eating.

Now, however, the Paris resident is a faithful Weight Watchers member. After a year of careful eating, the chubby, brown-haired researcher has dropped 46 pounds.

A more recent member, Karine hopes the Weight Watchers’ mantra of healthy eating will work as well.

“French still have a hard time accepting women who aren’t thin,” she said. “We’re really marginalized in society.”

Indeed, if obesity is rising in France, the culture has been slow to acknowledge it. Discrimination against those who are overweight is widespread at school and at work, government studies and news reports indicate. The French fashion industry certainly hasn’t embraced rotund women.

“Round fashion is only just beginning,” said Sylvie Fabregon, who handles the plus-sizes department for the Paris advertising agency Contrebande. “There’s still a feeling in France that being fat is a sort of sickness.”

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