January 29, 2006

“French Women Don’t Get Fat”

There are some interesting tidbits in the book French Women Don't Get Fat, which I recently took out of the library. I'm not sure I buy into everything author Mireille Guiliano put forth; but along with her tips for slow, mindful eating of high-quality foods (which makes a great deal of sense), she also points out some differences between typical American and European lifestyles. For example, the Swiss eat an average of 20 lbs of chocolate per person per year, yet they're not a particularly obese nation. Why?

"Half of their run-of-the-mill getting around is done on foot or bicycle," Guiliano notes. "Americans on average travel on their own steam less than 10 percent of the time. . . . Walking is an essential part of the French way of life, and the average French woman walks three times as much as the average American."

In fact, a fair number of American tourists are surprised when they visit Paris, sample the incredible food (including pastries) and come home the same weight or lighter. That happened to me during my lone visit to the French capital; and I'm sure that one reason was the hours of daily walking while sightseeing.

More time on foot isn't the only explanation for a French obesity rate of 11% vs. America's 24.5%. Many believe that French traditions she outlines -- notably a lack of convenience food, snacking and eating "on the run" -- play a large role. It's all part of an overall lifestyle package. And when you live in a community where it's not only unappealing but impossible to walk anywhere, and you spend almost all your time either sitting at a desk or in a car, it's not surprising that the pounds pile on. Especially when we're eating while watching TV, reading or getting ready to zip out the door, so our minds are less likely to register satiety with what we're putting in our mouths. Empty sugar-laden calories don't help.

"Obesity is linked to 112,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes in today's opinion pages (Times Select subscription required). "[R]emember that fat kills far more Americans than terrorists. . . . Imagine if Al Qaeda had resolved to attack us not with conventional chemical weapons but by slipping large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup into our food supply. That would finally rouse us to action — but in fact it's pretty much what we're doing to ourselves."

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