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French beat childhood obesity


As childhood obesity reaches epidemic levels in many developed countries (especially Australia, the US and the UK), it is great to see that at least one country is making some progress in halting it. The following article is from a blog column by Charles Bremner at the Times:

A glance is often enough to tell the nationality of the groups of young tourists who throng the street outside our office on the Place de l’Opéra. You don’t need to listen to the language or study the dress. The American kids are really wide. The Britons are next in excessive girth followed by Germans, Australians and Russians.

All right, that’s an intolerant generalisation. Obesity is a global epidemic and Americans and Brits are just leading the way, we are told. The “thin” countries like France are fast catching up, thanks to junk food and the sedentary habits of their kids. I read in a US newspaper: “Child obesity is the new ‘normal’ of the 21st century. It will remain that way”.
Well, perhaps not. This week, France reported that it has stopped the rise in overweight children over the past decade or so.

The news emerged from the 2008 European Congress on Obesity in Geneva. One study showed that there was no change in the weight of French seven to nine-year-olds between 2000 and 2007. In another survey the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) found no significant change in random samples of three to 17-year-olds in 1998-99 and 2006-2007.

The French results have caused a stir because they are the first evidence that it is possible to stop the blight of obesity that is sweeping the affluent world — including France. The experts are being cautious, but credit for the French success is being given to programmes that have been running for over a decade.

A national effort to change children’s eating habits began in 1992 with something called EPODE, for Ensemble, prevenons l’obésité des enfants, or Together, let’s prevent obesity in children. This set out to diagnose and treat children with weight problems. It also helped schools educate children in healthy eating.

Primary school kids have partaken since the early 1990s in an annual “taste week” and school cantines provide quality menus. Since 2005 processed food and drink vending machines have been removed from schools. The Government is now trying to persuade supermarkets to stop displaying high-calorie sweets and snacks at their check-out counters and food advertising is to be stopped on children’s television programmes. Everyone in France now knows the official recommendation: eat five different types of fruit and vegetable every day.

The AFSSA agency says the results are encouraging, though French children still suffer from unacceptable fatness. About 14 percent are overweight and 3.5 percent class as obese. This is just above Sweden and the Netherlands, which have the lowest rates. In Britain, which has a severe problem, about one third of children are overweight or obese.

Obviously national culture plays a big role. Servings of all food are still much smaller in France than in the English-speaking countries. For all their fondness for video games and le Macdo, as MacDonald’s is known, French youngsters still sit down to meals with their families.

Pascale Briand, Director-General of the food agency, told us that France has an advantage that is difficult to export. “The respect for the organisation of meals, their times, the notion of eating for pleasure, are all favourable factors in France,” she told Marie Tourres, our Paris reporter.
We sought the opinion of Patrick Serog, a nutritionist, physician who co-wrote a best-seller called Savoir Manger — eating right. “We have a cultural advantage over the Anglo-Saxon countries in particular. We eat as a convivial exercise, not just to nourish ourselves,” he said. “That enables us to have a fixed food structure, with a first course, main course and dessert and a varied menu. The body regulates itself better.”

After all the awareness campaigns, the message has finally got through. Eating five fruits and vegetables per day is impossible, but the ideal ends up penetrating and as a result people try to reach it. But nothing is won in the long term, says Serog. “Food habits change fast. It is easier for les Anglo-Saxons to export their soda than for France to export its food exception.”

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