Remember that book that came out a few years ago that explained to us the “French paradox” – why don’t French women get fat? Anybody who has, like me, been unable to resist a Paris boulangerie without stopping to indulge has marvelled at the ability of French women to remain so thin and gorgeous in spite of all those exquisite croissants, crusty baguettes, heavenly sauces, divine cheese and oh, those wines.
Author Mireille Guilano (who, incidentally, is thin and gorgeous herself) wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat in 2004, explaining that their secret is in the eating habits of the women in France. They prefer to savour their food calmly, take small portions, and never snack between meals. And they have traditionally eaten less of the trans fats that are so plentiful in the snack foods, fast food and frozen foods that North American women eat.
While overall heart disease rates in France average less than half (40/100,000 people) of our rates in Canada (95/100,000 people), regional differences in French diet and health have been quite pronounced, especially for chronic diseases like heart disease.
For example, middle-aged adults living in the southwest and Mediterranean areas of France still eat substantially less animal fat, including butter, and more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated olive and vegetable oils than those in northern areas. Not surprisingly, deaths due to heart disease are substantially higher in the north than in the south. The health of the French does seem to correspond to their diet and lifestyle, much more than the phrase “French paradox” suggests.
And contrary to their image as slim models of restraint, it seems that French women really do get fat, according to a new study published on November 10th.
The study showed that 15.1% of France’s women are now classed as clinically obese, while a further 26% are considered to be overweight. And a 2006 fashion industry study of 12,000 French women done by Pret a Porter Paris found that the average dress size for women in France has gone up at least one size since 1970.
Over the past 12 years, the average French person has put on 3.1 kg (6.83 lb) and added a further 4.7 cm (1.85 inches) around the waist, the new survey showed. This survey also pointed to similar trends among French men, with 13.9% of Frenchmen now considered obese and 38.5% overweight.
The researchers largely blame the modern French urban lifestyle – sedentary jobs, little physical activity, and all that fabulous food everywhere.
But what about wine, which has long been suspected of playing a positive role in the heart health of France? Natural antioxidants in wine, which are also found in tea, grapes and other fruits, do help to keep LDL (bad) cholesterol in a less-damaging form. At least one study, however, showed that French adults who drank more than one glass a day (and wouldn’t that be everybody?) tended to be more likely to smoke than their one-glass-a-day counterparts.