- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The appeal of pizza, hamburgers, soda pop and other American goodies is proving irresistible to Europeans — and it shows.

They are getting chubby, according to a study released yesterday by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which links growing Continental taste for Yankee fast food with dramatic weight gain in the population.

Researchers from three Spanish universities and the Spanish Ministry of Health collaborated with the Harvard School of Public Health, poring over the eating habits of more than 7,000 Europeans. Many have traded their typical Mediterranean-style diet for American fare.

Half of the study group reported that they were putting on pounds after regularly sampling fast food — described in the two-year study as “highly palatable,” oversized and rich in fat and carbohydrates, but low in dietary fiber.

“The prevalence of obesity is dramatically increasing, and this increase represents a leading public health problem,” the study said. “The adverse association between sweetened soft drinks or fast food and weight gain reported in the U.S. is beginning to appear in educated young adults.”

The researchers blamed soft drinks in particular for “significant” weight gain. They found, for example, that consumption of colas is up by more than 42 percent in Spain since 1991. They also cited hamburgers, pizza, sausage, red meat and sweetened fruit juice as other culprits, deeming them “markers of an unhealthy dietary pattern.”

Meanwhile, the Continent has sounded the overall obesity alarm. The European Commission reports that 14 million Europeans are overweight. Last month, a Kaiser Permanente study of the French taste for “a lifestyle that is increasingly American” concluded that the so-called French paradox — the theory that red wine, fresh foods and smaller portions protected the populace from obesity — was fading fast.

Food has been a focal point of culture wars between Europe and the United States for years, particularly after some U.S. lawmakers insisted that french fries be renamed “freedom fries” after European allies failed to side with the Bush administration’s Iraq policies.

Europeans have banded together to counter American fast food. The Slow Food movement — founded in Paris more than 16 years ago to raise the collective culinary profiles of France, Italy and other countries — now has 80,000 members in 100 countries.

But sometimes the burger rules.

In Savoir Manger, a popular French dining guide, two French nutritionists proclaimed last year that McDonald’s Big Mac cheeseburger was more healthy than scandalously rich quiche and other traditional French dishes. McDonald’s is in the midst of upgrading its European outlets with sofas, televisions, Internet access, video stations and other amenities.

McDonald’s European sales consistently rose last year, up by almost 5 percent in December compared with the same period in 2004, the Financial Times reported. The company yesterday rolled out its much-hyped “packaging with nutritional information” at — of all places — the Winter Games.

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