A decade ago a book called French Women Don’t Get Fat took the Anglophone world by storm. It was a bestseller in Britain and America because, as the blurb explained, the French author ‘unlocks the simple secrets’ of why her people aren’t fat. So here is my sequel: Why French Kids Don’t Get Fat.
Admittedly, there are a few who look like they know their way to the boulangerie, but in general most are slim, healthy and fit. The stats back me up. Last year, the French ministry of health reported that obesity levels among nine- and ten-year-olds had fallen to just 3.6 per cent. In Britain, an official report last year said ‘nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese’. This summer, Public Health England said obesity levels at age 10 and 11 were at a record high. The British Journal of Family Medicine warned that if these children don’t slim down, their adult years will be blighted by diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
How can there be such a contrast between two countries separated by 20 miles of water? Please, not the old nonsense about the ‘Mediterranean diet’. There’s nothing Mediterranean about Paris in winter. It’s just like Britain: cold, grey and miserable.
My 13-year-old daughter goes to school in Paris and after all the years I’ve spent waiting for her at the gates I can count on one hand the number of obese kids I’ve seen waddle out. And it’s not just the middle classes. Her mother teaches in a state school in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the most deprived regions in France. Her pupils are diverse in colour and creed, but none is obese. Their parents take pride in their appearance because they see it as an extension of their education.
It helps that parents have the full support of the authorities. Vending machines are banned in French schools and, as of last month, so are phones. Recreation is about running, jumping and letting off steam, not gaming and texting. Schools don’t permit packed lunches except in cases of severe allergies. Pupils eat in the cafeteria and get a well-balanced diet with fresh, nutritious ingredients. My daughter’s school’s website has a ‘menu’ tab and last week she could choose between pâté or green salad with Gruyère for a starter, fish or veal with vegetables for the main course, and Mimolette cheese or natural yoghurt for dessert. Water is the only drink available. There may also be croissants and brioche for breakfast, a crêpe or cake for goûter (tea). Crème brûlées, tartes Tatin and eclairs, too. But French children do not snack on crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks outside of meal times.
I feel sorry for British children. Supermarkets and corner-shop shelves groan with confections and sugary drinks. Shop assistants ask customers if they’d like to add a supersize chocolate bar to their basket. For years the NHS has been alerting us to the dangers of obesity, as they did about smoking. We heeded those warnings and smoking rates are at a record low (only 7 per cent of 15-year-olds now smoke against 20 per cent in 2006). But, as if to compensate, we stuff our faces. And far from condemning the obese for the damage they do to themselves, we cosset them and celebrate fat as ‘fabulous’.
The French are not shy about this. ‘Fat-shaming’, or grossophobie, is commonplace, a point made last year in a book by a massive madame called Gabrielle Deydier, who moaned about the discrimination she faced. The Observer claimed the book ‘ignited her native France’. It did no such thing. If you are grossly overweight in France, you are regarded as weak, lazy and indisciplined.
The author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano, did fatten up during her time as an exchange student in America, and was told by her father that she looked like a sack of potatoes. So she slimmed down and wrote about it. The French couldn’t understand all the fuss about ‘unlocking of secrets’ that so astonished the Anglo-Saxons. What she wrote was, to them, common sense. Like keeping an eye on what your children eat.
The reason for the supersize difference in weight between British and French children is simple: the French are better parents. They are stricter and more mature. They don’t see their children as their friends; they are their offspring, to be educated, disciplined and controlled. The French aren’t afraid to say non.