I’ve had this question many times: “If wheat is a major cause for obesity, why are the enthusiastic wheat-eating French so slender?” It prompts oft-repeated claims like “French women don’t get fat.”
Well, they’re not all so slender as described. (I snapped these people photos, most of the people walking by speaking French.) I’m in Paris, spending a lot of time at the Rolland Garros tennis facilities with tens of thousands of French people at the event, as well as restaurants, subways, groceries, and streets. Overweight and obesity are everywhere. While the tennis event is international, I hear most of them speaking French and I engage with many of them, also clearly French, as I struggle with my haltingly piecemeal French.
They are not as severely overweight as people in North America and not as overweight as those in some other European countries, but there is a clear and widespread weight problem here. Sit for just one minute, and you will witness a dozen or more people just in that time walk by who have a weight problem. French authorities predict that, at the current rate of rise, the French will equal the U.S. in obesity rates by the year 2020, in just 5 years.
I’m not the first to make this observation; here is a New York Times article from 2010, for instance, citing some of the numbers: 40% of the French are overweight, 11.3% are obese, and the numbers are on the rise. French doctors have repeated expressed alarm at the growing weight trends.
I can conceive of a number of reasons why the French have a bit less of a problem with weight (though clearly not entirely spared). Among those reasons:
- Higher fat intake–Greater fat in the diet from meats, butter, and cream blunt the rise in blood sugar-it still rises substantially with grains/carbs/sugars, but just not as strikingly, provoking less insulin resistance. (I had duck for dinner at a French restaurant, for example, with a thick slab of fat left on the meat. At breakfast, thick slices of cheese were among the offerings, no low-fat options in sight.)
- Less snacking and fast food–although these are cited as becoming relics of the past, as French adopt American-style snacking and fast food. McDonald’s and KFC are common sights in Paris.
- Different strains of wheat–The role of this effect has not been formally quantified, as such distinctions among cultivars (strains) are virtually never explored scientifically (though virtually all semi-dwarf strains). It would be consistent with the common anecdotal claim that French wheat products do not provoke as much gastrointestinal distress as that consumed in North America (though a variation in perceived effect should not be construed as meaning that other effects are mitigated, as well, such as provocation of autoimmune diseases, anti-nutrient phytate effects, and blood sugar rises). France has also had to import much of its wheat from countries including Germany, the Ukraine, and Canada.
(Semidwarf wheat harvest in Avignonet-Lauragais, France; from Bloomberg Business.)
- They are more likely to smoke cigarettes–though this difference is diminishing as less and less French smoke (though they do indeed smoke more conspicuously, not having to confine their puffing to dark corners, as in the U.S.).
There are also factors such as some preservation of family communal eating (though that is eroding, particularly in urban centers) and walking.
You can often indeed pick out the North Americans and British in the crowds, as they are the most obese, but there seem to be an increasing number of French who are catching up.
(From the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, an international collaboration for social change and policy.)
Another observation: The French seem to show more of the “skinny fat person” effect, formally labeled metabolically obese normal weight, or MONW: people who remain more or less within the “normal” range for weight but show visceral fat–reflected by protruding abdomens or “muffin tops” on the surface, along with skinny, under muscled arms, legs, and chests. This phenomenon was incredibly common: I saw it in men, women, young, old, children, made even more apparent by the French predilection for tight pants and shirts, protuberant bellies in obvious sight.
The skinny fat/MONW people are typically not captured in national weight data, as body weight and body mass index (BMI) often fall within or near the “normal” range, despite the metabolic disruptions, such as high blood sugar and insulin, high triglycerides, low HDL, excess small LDL particles, and inflammation, these people experience. Why there seems to be an excess of this less-than-overtly-obese pattern is subject to speculation: genetic variants, blunting of blood sugar/insulin by the higher fat intake, regional variation in bowel flora, etc.
All in all, the notion that French people are spared from the weight-provoking and health effects of wheat, grains, sugars, etc. is a fiction. There may be some lessons to learn in comparing how the French have lived traditionally up until the latter years of the 20th century and how their health habits have more recently been corrupted with adverse consequences more recently. But the fiction of such common “wisdoms” as “French women don’t get fat” or traditionally prepared French meringues and mousses are forms of health food need to go the same way as fictions such as “eat more healthy whole grains.”