Americans still seem to love one thing about the French, which is why the diet book French Women Don't Get Fat became a best seller. But when the book is released in France this fall, the reaction is likely to be more skeptical. Experts there are increasingly concerned about France's weight problem. A recent book by politician Jean-Marie Le Guen, Obesity: A New French Illness, notes that women in France, like women everywhere else, do get fat because they have less time to shop for fresh produce and are wolfing down more processed foods. Over the past decade, the obesity rate among French children has doubled, from 6% to 12%, and between 1997 and 2003 the percentage of overweight and obese adults jumped from 37% to 42%. That growth curve parallels the one in the U.S. about 10 years ago.
But the French are ahead of us in one important way: they have launched an ambitious state-sponsored effort to head off weight gain before it reaches American proportions. Le Guen is backing several bills in the National Assembly that would regulate diet and exercise nationwide. Starting this fall, vending machines will be banned from all public schools and universities. Ten cities have adopted a school curriculum, based on eating well and in moderation, developed in Fleurbaix Laventie, a small town near the Belgian border. There, kids are taught to choose vegetables and fresh foods over fried and processed ones. From age 3, students work with nutritionists to learn food science and cooking, and the lessons are kept up in English and math classes. As a result, childhood obesity in the town has risen just 1% in the past 10 years. "The trick is never to tell the children no," says program director Agnès Lommez. "Kids can and should eat chips, just not every day." --By Jeninne Lee-St. John. Reported by Jonathan Shenfield