I marvel at how exportable American culture is. What is so seductive about our way of life? Why do others so readily adopt – and sometimes even improve on – our gadgets, our language, our clothing, our food, our habits both good and bad?
Having just spent two weeks in the U.K., I’m here to report that we Americans have no hammerlock on overweight and obesity. Clearly the British have managed to adopt the same combination of overeating and underexercising that has done us in. Like us, over 50% of them are overweight and a substantial portion meet criteria for obesity.
But surely not the French! A few years ago Mireille Guiliano, an executive at Veuve-Cliquot and still rail-thin well into her sixties, wrote a runaway bestseller assuring us that French Women Don’t Get Fat and telling us the secrets of their success. Follow the traditional French diet, take time to savor your food, don’t snack, and walk, walk, walk (no gyms for these women!), and you too can be as svelte as Catherine Deneuve.
I yield to no one as a Francophile and am a great fan of Guiliano and her book. I have no doubt that anyone who can tune out the siren song of American culture and follow Guiliano’s program will be the better (and probably the thinner) for it. But is it really true that French women don’t get fat? “Oh, but they do!” says Dr. France Bellisle, a French obesity researcher. In an interview with the International Herald Tribune, she indicated that while absolute rates are still lower than in the U.S. and other Europen countries, they are rising alarmingly – 5% annually since 1997. Nearly 40% of the French are now overweight (BMI at least 25), and over 11% are obese (BMI at least 30). Alas, the French have no immunity to obesity.
The more cynical among us may point to one other reason why French women don’t get fat – many of them smoke (not recommended by Guiliano, by the way). Indeed, the legendary Deneuve herself evidently contines to smoke, at least in part because she is terrified of gaining weight. She was once quoted in Britain’s Sunday Times Stylemagazine as saying, “I gave up for 12 years. Then, because of certain problems, certain difficulties, I started letting myself have three a day. Then it was six….” (A sadly familiar story and testimonial to the near impossibility of adhering to a smoking diet.)
The French are now confronting their smoking problem aggressively, so the stereotype of the slim and elegant French woman, cigarette in hand. may soon become a thing of the past. If you’ve read Life After Cigarettes or followed my blog, however, you know by now that decreases in smoking actually contribute only a small amount to the so-called obesity epidemic, and that most women who quit will be able to limit the amount of weight they gain to around 5-10 pounds – approximately one BMI unit and less than a dress size. You also know that even with those few extra pounds you will look and feel better than before, since except for suppressing weight, the effects of smoking on appearance and well-being are all negative (less feminine body shape, more skin wrinkling, less energy, detrimental effects on nails, teeth, hair, and posture, etc.). The trick is to embrace weight management practices that work for you (be they American, French, or whatever) and turn your back on the ubiquitous pressures in our environment to overeat and underexercise.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.