Malnourished Monday
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Malnourished Monday #16: French women don’t get fat

elle special rondes

Imagine a special on ‘Big is beautiful’ in a high-class fashion magazine. Now imagine the special to be in the French Elle. Impossible? That’s what I thought, too. So when I read about it on Tish’s blog A femme d’un certain age, I had to dash out, grab a copy and see it with my own eyes. After all, French women don’t get fat, right?

Well, not quite. Apart from France rushing at high speed into the Globesity trap (more on that later), a lot of maintaining a low weight is simply down to an obsessive relationship with food. Food plays a central role in the French culture, which I believe is a good thing. But when it comes to watching what you eat, you might find a usually private affair becoming of interest to the public.

Putting too much sugar in your coffee, or helping yourself to another serving from the cheese board can easily lead to tut-tutting from your French partner and even the withdrawal of said cheese board. In front of all your friends. If I still had the food police around me, I’d be stick thin today, too. Miserable, but stick thin.

A little straw poll: I know exactly one French woman that is very thin without obsessing about food. In fact, she eats cake for breakfast, helps herself to generous servings and never skips desert. It’s her metabolism that makes her stay thin, and it is quite unique. I know about ten more French women. Seven of them extremely thin. And seven of them picking on food like little birds, having doll-like portions and living with what I’d call controlled anorexia.

A study by TMO from 1999 revealed that 69% of French women are preoccupied with thoughts about their weight. Another study that looked at eating habits of girls compared with boys revealed that in France, 68% of the girls wanted to limit their calorie intake, compared with only 21% in Canada. We are talking about children aged five to 17! Whilst the boys’ meals contained an average of 3.3 items, the girls’ meals only contained 2.1. As they get older, these numbers decrease for the girls and increase for the boys.

With that much pressure from the outside world, staying thin is more than a personal choice.

But the times, they are a changing. And unfortunately, a lot of what used to be the French paradox is changing for the worse. Rather quickly, France is losing its ‘common food culture’, leading France into an obesity crisis. Absolute figures of people being overweight or obese are still relatively low compared to Britain, Germany or the US. But the growth rates are appalling with five percent annually since 1997.

The rising availability of fast food and prepared foods (which are higher in fat and calories than your average home cooked meal), the ubiquitous availability of snacks (snacking has never been part of the French food culture) and the current change of where and how to buy your food (i.e. fresh and only your daily needs from the market vs. piling food at home after a trip to a gigantic hypermarché) all ad to the shift in eating habits.

Sadly so, the myth of French women not getting fat is vanishing into thin air.

For more reading on the topic: The Food Navigator, The New York Times, The Guardian and the dossier in the French Elle.


  1. All my skinny friends seem to eat like horses! I always wonder if they throw up when they get home and it is all for show! My metabolism has come to standstill!

  2. That’s a really interesting post. I’ve also noticed a definitely difference in Spain as well, there are a lot more obese people, especially children now then when I first moved here.

  3. Very interesting post indeed. I had seen this ELLE article in another blog, Its sounds surprise.
    I lived in Belgium and Spain and people there was very thin, and I never understand how. The same in France…with the fantastic food, how they do to keep fit.
    SInce I was born I fight with my weight, and I never figured out how they dont put weight…

  4. Funny that we just can’t seem to find a happy median on this topic. We are either obsessively pre-occupied with our weight to the point of sickness or we throw our hands up in the air and the obesity rates grow rapidly. Love to think that maybe one day this will not be the way for future generations of women, maybe wishful thinking on my part.
    I have left a little something for you over at my blog, take a peek whenever you have a chance!

  5. I think some of this goes on in Belgium – an acceptable lunch for a woman is a salad, but with white wine of course.

  6. I purchased “French Women Don’t Get Fat” right after the birth of my first child. It was common sense: portion control, walk a lot (the idea that the French walk everywhere), eat fresh foods, etc., yet you can still drink you wine! Sad to hear that bad habits are hitting that area of the world as well. Although, I always joked that they were so thin because they were chain smokers as well. 🙂

  7. Mwa makes a very good point. I reckon I oculd survive on a salad for lunch if it were accompanied by a chilled white wine.

    Also, is it an urban myth that French woman have an injection when they are pregnant that enables them to eat all the cheeses we’re banned from? If so, it’s an urban myth I perpetuate…

  8. If the French can’t get it right with food, then what is left for us to look forward to in life?

  9. I can imagine the fast food culture has been slower to take hold in France. But interesting to see obesity becoming more of a problem now. Those statistics about French women worrying about their weight are quite shocking. I used to be very thin, I’m just over 5’7″ and was 7.5 stone until my mid twenties. I really honestly did eat anything I wanted to, it’s a family trait. So I’m wary of labelling anyone who’s thin with having an eating problem. For me, it’s all changed post children of course!

  10. melinda says

    My HB is french and we’re often there, of course. (And of course he brought me the “fat” edition of french Elle last week) I know lots of thin french women, they’re all over 40. They like their cheese and butter and enjoy their food very much. They can eat for hours, but the portions are rather small and the emphasis is more on “enjoy”, than on quantity. They’re not anorexic stick thin, they’re just normal thin. And then I know fat french yungsters, growing up on McDonalds and other fast food – which is the complete opposite to french food culture.

  11. This was really interesting. So much for the myth – they had us all thinking that just because they’re chic, they don’t have the fat gene! x

  12. For a while I used to go to Vienna every year and my mum used to torture me to lose weight – we’d walk about five hours a day while pushing stroller and also she’d make me swim many laps in the Danube and reward me with a cucumber slice. I always lost 20lb over five weeks or so but alas the downside was me having a complete nervous breakdown. These days I stay in the US and run on the treadmill and just try and stay the same weight.

  13. I lived in Normandy for a year in a my 20’s. I’ve never been thinner in my life in spite of the fact that I ate all I wanted but, I did work something like 11 or 12 hours a day so I guess that helped to burn all the butter, cream, cakes… I didn’t find the women specially thin. Very interesting article, thank you for sharing it with us.

  14. The managed anorexia makes sense- I have always thought they stayed thin because their food is so rich you don’t want very much- one rose macaroon would satisfy you where a whole slice of Victoria sponge might be a British lady of yores tea snack.

    I know so many managed anorexics and what is interesting is both that they think that is a good thing and that their partners don’t will comment that it’s a bit wrong that they only had a yoghurt from 9am to 7pm but won’t actually do anything about it.

    I know one person who manages her diet very strictly and eats 1000 calories a day and has done for about 3 years. Her husband thinks it’s ‘sweet’ and that ‘she just likes looking after herself’ he also says he would leave her if she ever went over a size 10. Nice guy huh?!

  15. A really interesting post and a great debate too. More and more it seems to point towards being sensible and aware of what you are eating and how you manage it. Although not so aware you are effectively a managed anorexic! To be honest that sounds very boring, I enjoy eating too much.

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