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How do the French stay so slim?

Sally Ann Voak was The Sun’s slimming editor for 32 years and has written 28 books on the subject. For the past 17 years she and her husband Pat, have lived part-time in the village of Baillolet in Normandy. Here she explores the difference in attitudes to food and slimming between the UK and France

FRANCE, despite delicious food and wine, a proliferation of fast food outlets, and high-fat convenience meals appearing on supermarket shelves, has yet to hit the same levels of obesity as the UK.

It may not be true all French people are slim but while a recent study shows 11% are obese, the amount rises to 25% in Britain.

So, how do the French, in particular French women stay slim with all the gastronomic temptations around them? I compared attitudes of French and British friends:

Role models

In the UK, chunky celebrities are praised for their constant battles of the bulge. There is a collective sigh of relief from their fans when they fail.

I was astonished to read a well known British newspaper columnist congratulating a very overweight broadcaster for “being herself ” in an unflattering, size-16 pink, sequinned evening dress. She looked like an overstuffed sausage.

Here, women admire Carla and Ségolène for their chic and slender bodies, as well as their intelligence.

Sadly, Brits are becoming conditioned to accepting obesity. In some UK towns, reasonably-sized people appear undernourished. In France, it is still considered unhealthy to be fat.

Meal sizes

The American custom of serving huge portions has taken a firm hold in Britain. Megaburgers, jumbo sausages, supersized sandwiches are typical lunchtime fare.

At the top end of the market, it's the same story. We Brits want value for money. One single, delicious slice of tarte au chocolat? No thanks, let us have a pile of profiteroles.

We skip breakfast, grab a fat-loaded lunch, knock back a few alcoholic drinks, then, willpower shot to pieces, dive into an enormous evening meal.

French meals are wellbalanced, and the traditional “proper” lunch means that snacking is unnecessary.

French women do not experience the 16.00 blood sugar “low” that hits most offices in the UK – when biscuits and cakes appear as if by magic.

Slimming products

In the UK, appetite suppressants, bought on the internet or from health food shops are top sellers and can be obtained from a GP.

Pre-packed “healthy” meals in supermarkets are so tiny slimmers eat two or more, or add real food. Sweeteners in low-calorie drinks havebeen found to encourage sugar cravings, rather than reduce them.

In France, pharmacies are piled with produits minceur, but they are more likely to be for long-term use, such as a detox drink, massage cream and anti-cellulite oil designed as a month-long programme. The ingredients may be suspect, and efficacy unproven, but the ritual of using these products is all-important.

Low-calorie packet meals are becoming more popular, and I fear the next generation of women will lower their culinary standards. Resist, mes amies!

Magazine regimes

The difference between the diet advice given in the two countries is remarkable.

A French nutritionist in a recent issue of a popular magazine advised avoiding large salads and cruditées to help prevent “la culotte de cheval” a backside the size of a horse because of the large water content in vegetables. Tough advice, and not strictly necessary.

She also expected her readers to sip herbal infusions, whizz up fennel and cucumber soup, and give up all cheese and bread.

UK diets are not as stringent, recipes are simpler and the message is “eat lots, and still lose weight.” The problem starts when slimmers come off the plan and go back to eating large portions of high-calorie foods.

The “quick fix” approach in the UK encourages yo-yo dieting, leading to long-term problems.

Diet clubs

It has been estimated the average “life” of a member of UK Weight Watchers is one month. There are more than a million women weighing in at weekly meetings.

However, the vast majority regain the weight they lose. I have yet to see an advertisement for a diet club in my Normandy newspaper.

Weight Watchers says it has only 35,500 members in France but the meetings and internet club are becoming more popular. French women never dash home after the weigh-in – they require proper counselling.


Going to the gym or health club is a luxury in the UK. Municipal facilities such as pools and tennis courts are less accessible, and only wealthier women can afford private club membership.

British women are less sportif because sports have declined at school, and family activities like skiing – for all income groups in France – are only enjoyed by the few.

It does seem to be changing, and I have noticed more British friends buying bikes.

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