Why the French are (finally) getting fat

Fast food is becoming increasingly popular in France, wreaking havoc on the food culture — and the waistlines

A McDonalds meal in Paris: Not even the famously svelte French are impervious to the fattening effects of fast food.
(Image credit: CC BY: erin & camera)

France has long been admired for its gourmet food culture and the, seemingly contradictory, thin frames of its people. But, that's changing. Fast food is growing increasingly popular in the land of Le Cordon Bleu, and obesity rates are on the rise. Here, a brief guide:

What is happening?

France is becoming increasingly colonized by chain restaurants, from fast food joints like Subway and McDonald's to more upscale sit-down franchises like a steakhouse called Hippopotamus, now make up 20 percent of the country's restaurant sales. Mon dieu! The news comes as France, long thought of as a nation of annoyingly petite people who eat cheese and drink wine without consequence, is experiencing a rise in obesity. Nearly 14 percent of French adults are now obese, up from 8 percent a decade ago. By comparison, one out of three American adults is considered obese.

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Are chain restaurants to blame?

In part. Urbanization and globalization — and the McDonald's that come with them — have led many French to abandon traditionally healthy eating habits. For generations, France's focus on food and the mealtime ritual helped shield people from obesity, says Dr. Jean Marc Catheline, as paraphrased at NPR. Now, young people aren't learning to cook; they're eating meals quickly and on the go, and downing soda by the liter. "The un-French habit of eating anywhere, anytime, seems to be catching on in France, especially with young people," says Eleanor Beardsley at NPR. As in the U.S., obesity rates are higher among poor people.

Is fast food that popular in France?

Surprisingly, the country is the No. 2 consumer of McDonald's fare in the world. McD's is expanding its operations in France in the next year, offering French-style breakfasts with bread, butter, and jam and baguette sandwiches. "We are part of French people's everyday life," says Mathilde Visseyrias, VP of McDonald's France and Southern Europe, in TIME. "Our priority is to integrate ourselves locally and to give a French touch to our original offer of hamburgers and ice cream."

Why are chain restaurants succeeding in the land of food snobbery?

The 2008 financial crisis hit independent establishments hard. Chain restaurants also typically operate seven days a week, while many independent establishments do not. They are also cheaper, and, during his presidency, Jacques Chirac harshly criticized "la male bouffe" (the bad grub) served in chain restaurants, which may have inadvertently lent them a cool factor.

Is anything being done to fight the bulge?

Yes, under a national obesity plan, vending machines have been taken out of French schools and ads air on television encouraging the populace to eat right, take the stairs, and avoid nibbling between meals.

Sources: Baltimore Sun, Business Insider, NPR, TIME

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