How the French stay thin

How do the French stay svelte?

Answer: walk, don’t snack, and don’t gobble processed foods.

A friend recently remarked on his first visit to Bordeaux, France, “how is it that these people are mostly thin, when they eat so well ?!”

It’s not an uncommon observation. And backed by official statistics that list 9% of French people as obese, compared with:
Australia & NZ – 22%
UK – 23%
USA – 30%

And the French do eat well. They are in-line with all the richest countries when it comes to per capita consumption of protein and fat. They sit down at restaurants for lunch and dinner for a decent meal. Yet they have low rates of heart disease (less than half of USA, UK, NZ or Australia).

My friend thought it must have something to do with genetics, certainly genetics affect body shape (e.g. the Dutch are very tall which isn’t just due to the large amounts of protein they eat). But there are set laws of thermodynamics, weight gain comes from calories that aren’t used up in exercise, and the French aren’t immune to this.

So what do the French eat ?

First, it is important to note the latest epidemiological research that shows what food matters:

Within each 4-year period, participants gained an average of 3.35 lb (5th to 95th percentile, −4.1 to 12.4). On the basis of increased daily servings of individual dietary components, 4-year weight change was most strongly associated with the intake of potato chips (1.69 lb), potatoes (1.28 lb), sugar-sweetened beverages (1.00 lb), unprocessed red meats (0.95 lb), and processed meats (0.93 lb) and was inversely associated with the intake of vegetables (−0.22 lb), whole grains (−0.37 lb), fruits (−0.49 lb), nuts (−0.57 lb), and yogurt (−0.82 lb) (P≤0.005 for each comparison).

So there is irony: French fries make people fat. Perhaps the French don’t actually eat much ? Turns out they don’t, they French consume about 30kg per capita of fresh potatoes and 25kg of processed. The UK is about double this! USA and Australia eat similar amounts as the UK but even more potatoes are eaten as chips than unprocessed (only 30% are eaten as potatoes).

But don’t the French eat lots of meat? Ah, no actually they eat 30-50% less than the top meat eating countries like Australia, NZ and USA – see Current Worldwide Annual Meat Consumption per capita.

Aren’t the French thin because they smoke ? Yes that’s part of it though the French don’t smoke much more than the average Western countries. France is only a little higher than Australia.

Soft-drink wise it’s no surprise that Americans drink double the amount of soft-drink of Australians and the English, actually they are drinking less lately but still almost 200 litres per head per year. The French drink a mere 37 litres.

Of course the French are more likely to drink wine (more likely to drink any alcohol). But they drink like they eat – slowly, over conversation – and instead of soft-drinks. They don’t gobble, and are less likely to eat in front of the TV!

They eat dessert, but it tends to be rich (fatty and sweet) and small. They are less likely to eat sweets to snack on the run. In fact less likely to snack at all.

So they eat like adults 🙂 And they walk and cycle more.

This article reflects my personal views. It was not commissioned or paid for by anyone.

PS France has less than half the number of McDonalds outlets per capita of Australia (and less still than USA).

PPS So do developing countries eat better? No, people in less productive countries might not be so obese, due to fewer calories and more exercise, but fruit and vegetable consumption is often low and/or with little variety.

PPPS There is an urban myth that France has capitulated to American fast food. A popular line to surprise dinner guests goes like this “there are more McDonalds stores per capita in France than the USA” or “France is the biggest market for McDonalds after the U.S.”  Now the French do like burgers but the biggest market for McDonalds after the U.S. is Japan (which is surprising) followed by Canada (less surprising). On a stores per capita basis France only just makes it into the top 20 countries (at number 20).

About ByronSharp

Byron Sharp is Professor of Marketing Science, and director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, University of South Australia
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