The French have a lot invested in their elegant, slim and manicured image. The gardens, the architecture, the clothes and especially the food - c'est magnifique! Gaining weight just doesn't fit their style. French women don't want to even get a little bit plump let alone fat -- they could end up looking like Americans, or worse, Brits.
French people, in general, revere the quality of their food and believe that the way to lose weight is to eat less of it. It's an easy formula. Jenny Craig focuses on eating less too, but with pre-packaged low-calorie-meals-in-a-box. As unlikely a union as it may appear to be, Nestle, the world's largest food manufacturer, has decided to introduce the French to Jenny Craig. Nestle, who has been selling France products like "Fitness" cereal for "un petit dejeuner mince in calories" (low calorie breakfast) for many years, acquired the diet company in 2006. (It was founded by Sidney and Jenny Craig in Melbourne, Australia in 1983, and opened for business in America in 1985.) For some inexplicable reason, Nestle seem to believe that their first foray into the European market should not be the U.K., a place that likes loopy diet schemes almost as much as America does, but a country that believes the civility of a nation is judged by what it has for dinner. They claim the reason for their entry into France is altruistic: they want to reverse "a major public health issue." With a box of thun basquaise for lunch and navarin d'agneau for dinner, they have set out to conquer the new and terrible problem of obesity in France. They want to be a part of the solution.
But, according to latest figures from the OECD Factbook 2009, only 10 percent of the French adult population is obese. That means that one in 10 French women do get fat after all, as determined by the World Health Organization standard of a BMI above 30. (OECD Factbook places America, at 34 percent, as the number one developed nation in terms of obesity. The U.K. figure is 24 percent, and Jenny Craig reports that it will open up shop there later this year. You can calculate your BMI here).
Although it is laudable to use preventative measures to prevent an epidemic, it does seem like Nestle -- the biggest of Big Food/Big Weight Loss -- is trying to create a problem in France that just doesn't exist.
This actually happened in America in the mid 20th century, when, believe it or not, only about 10 percent of the US population was obese. There was so much money to be made from people attempting to lose weight that an industry was born long before there was a need for one, and clearly that industry didn't prevent us from becoming the nation we are today - more than two thirds of the U.S. adult population is currently either obese or overweight. This is for many reasons - moving less, driving more, cooking fewer meals at home, eating larger portions of cheap, high calorie foods and fewer fruits and vegetables.
A less obvious component is the insidious weight loss industry, constantly suggesting that people aren't quite good enough unless they are thinner, and setting them up to fail with one more scheme that does nothing to educate or change lifestyle and is often based on starvation or expensive pre-packaged meals. Few would choose to be on such a plan for very long, and then the weight is regained, often with a couple of pounds more than before.
Nestle is confident the French will embrace Jenny Craig because it is American. The French have never respected us much for our culinary skills, but they are very impressed when it comes to our dieting prowess, as it turns out.
Developing a fear of obesity, and setting people up to "diet" with standardized packaged meals as opposed to simply educating as to how to eat better and less is setting people up to fail. The fewer "diet" plans around the better, as far as I'm concerned. A poster child for Jenny Craig's lack of effectiveness is Kirstie Alley, former spokeswoman for the chain and current reality star of a show about her need to lose weight. She now has her own line of pre-packaged organic diet meals in a box, as if the organic part might make a difference.
Here's why I think Jenny Craig will fail in France: French children don't get fat. In 2004, when an uptick in childhood obesity was reported there, the government responded swiftly - children between the ages of five and 12 were weighed at school and reports containing their weights and body mass indexes were sent to their parents, along with instructions explaining how to interpret the numbers. Parents then attended meetings with local physicians and dieticians about ways to prevent or reverse the trend with diet and exercise, and children were taught about portion control and good nutrition. Vending machines selling soda and snacks were banned from school campuses and exercise was encouraged. The Plan was simple, clear and effective-the obesity rate declined before stabilizing in 2007.
Michelle Obama's "Healthy Kids Initiative" and "Let's Move!" campaign has some of these components, and hopefully they will get some positive results for America. In the meanwhile, I hope the French will soon say au revoir, Madame Craig, au revoir.
Susan Yager www.thehundredyeardiet.com
Author: The Hundred Year Diet. America's Voracious Appetite For Losing Weight, Rodale, May 11, 2010.
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