Obesity has become an epidemic in France and combating it must be a political priority, experts have warned.
A coalition of patients’ associations, healthcare professionals, food banks and a think tank published an open letter calling for obesity to be selected as France’s grande cause nationale in 2024.
National campaign each year in France
Each year, the prime minister identifies one grande cause nationale. The label grants charities access to free public TV and radio slots for their fundraising and awareness campaigns.
Each channel must broadcast 12 messages from selected organisations over the course of the year.
No campaign has yet been announced for 2023, but recent causes include violence against women, reading, and autism.
Ten-year cross-ministry plan needed
Anne-Sophie Joly, president of the Collectif national des associations d’obèses, a group of patients’ associations, and a signatory of the letter, said: “This would simply be the starting point for a renewable 10-year plan involving several ministries, including health, sport, agriculture, finance and education.”
It could also involve making the Nutri-Score nutrition labels, which grade products from A to E, mandatory for all products and advertising campaigns, she added.
The scheme is currently voluntary.
One in four obese by 2030
The percentage of French adults who are obese has doubled in the last 25 years, from 8.5% in 1997 to 17% in 2020 – some 8.5 million adults.
Estimates suggest this could rise to one in four people by 2030.
A body mass index (BMI) over 25 is considered overweight, and over 30 is obese.
Obesity has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as a disease since 1997.
‘Stop telling patients it is their fault’
The coalition is calling for the most serious cases (BMI of over 35) to be considered a chronic disease, allowing treatments to be fully reimbursed by the nation’s social security system.
“Social security already covers most of the treatment, but for the one million people who are morbidly obese, it would mean we stop telling patients it is their fault,” Ms Joly said.
“It’s more complicated than telling people to go for a run. Once this morbidity has begun, it is not easily reversed.”
She added that this recognition could also be a step towards making training around obesity mandatory in medical schools.
“Today, France produces healthcare workers who are not trained in obesity yet will eventually have half the population in their surgery for weight issues.
“Obesity can lead to 18 illnesses, 19 including Covid. Tackle obesity and you tackle all types of health problems.”
Movement and food are key
Health Minister François Braun has said he wants the 2024 Olympics in Paris to provide a springboard for a greater focus on prevention, but Ms Joly believes it would be an error to focus exclusively on competitive sport.
“What we advocate is movement – when you take your pet for a walk or do some gardening, you are expending energy.”
While there are multiple factors behind the rise in obesity, part of the explanation can be found in the food we eat.
“As a society, we buy lots of processed foods, which was not the case 50 years ago,” said Ms Joly.
“We need to return to our grandmothers’ stews, as we knew what was in them.
“Today, people don’t have the time to cook, and there is an intergenerational transmission of knowledge which has been lost too.”
More US fast food chains due to open in France
She said working-class people are the most likely to feel the consequences, particularly as inflation further squeezes budgets: “Sadly, the cheapest products are usually the worst in terms of ingredients.”
A relatively recent development has been the runaway success of US fast food chains in France, which shows no signs of abating.
Since the first McDonald’s opened in Strasbourg in 1979, Burger King, KFC, Five Guys and Steak ‘n Shake have all found a market in the country.
A first Popeyes restaurant opened in Paris in February, and Wendy’s could soon follow suit, as will Krispy Kreme doughnuts.