Seen on NPR:

Restaurants line a street of the Quartier Latin in central Paris.

As the United States struggles to cope with obesity rates, France is often looked to as a counterexample. Yet obesity is on the rise there as well now, and though French culinary traditions are often credited with keeping people trim, some worry those eating habits are under assault.

French obesity rates are still far below those of the United States and other European countries. One might think they would be a lot worse. The shops and outdoor markets are full of pastries, meats and cheeses, and people are always talking about food. It turns out that it’s not only what the French eat but how they eat that seems to make a difference.

From the start, French children are taught to respect the ritual of mealtimes and the beauty of a well-balanced diet. At one public day care center in Paris, 2-and-a-half-year-olds sit around a table for a hot lunch. The tiny diners wear napkins at their necks and are taught the proper use of cutlery. A recent menu featured grilled leg of lamb and cauliflower au gratin, all freshly prepared in the day care’s own kitchen.

Even at this age, the French believe dinnertime should be a moment of pleasure and conviviality. In France, starting each child with a solid culinary base in life is considered well worth the investment in time and money.

Dr. Jean Marc Catheline, an obesity specialist, says the French obsession with food is exactly what has protected them against obesity.

“The French know how to cook and prepare food,” he says. “French families have always known what’s good for them and what isn’t. We are also a country with strong rural traditions and great respect for food from the farm.”

However, Catheline says urbanization, immigration and globalization are moving France away from its eating traditions. Many young people are no longer interested in learning how to cook, he says, and the ritual of mealtimes is being forgotten. As a result, obesity is growing. Nearly 14 percent of the French adult population is now obese, compared with 8 percent just 10 years ago. Though these rates are still half those of the United States, the French government isn’t taking it lightly.

The national obesity plan includes hip television ads encouraging people to eat the right foods, take the stairs and not to snack between meals. Vending machines have been removed from schools.

As in the U.S., Catheline says, obesity rates in France are higher in rural areas, where people drive everywhere. Obesity is also a bigger problem among the poor.

“There are some places in France where obesity levels are as high as in the U.S., like in poor, immigrant communities. So as we watch U.S. rates rise, this is extremely worrying for us,” he says.

French visitors to the U.S. are often surprised by the way people eat. Lea Bresier, who spent a year teaching French in Virginia, says there seemed to be no order or rules to eating there.

“When I was in the U.S., everybody, they are eating all the time in the streets. They always have something in their hands, like Coke or sweet drinks, and they are always eating in their car,” Bresier says.

The un-French habit of eating anywhere, anytime, seems to be catching on in France, especially with young people. It’s not uncommon to see teenagers drinking out of liter bottles of soda while hanging out in the street — an unthinkable sight even a few years ago.

Pauline and Bertrand Dubois, who are in their late 30s, are raising their two young children the way they grew up, with regular family mealtimes. A normal dinner for the Dubois family includes ham and a puree blended from fresh vegetables. Bertrand Dubois worries American pop culture is changing French eating habits.

“We’re copying what we see on American television shows,” he said in French. “Now we think we have to do things we never did before, like open our refrigerator as soon as we walk in our front door, no matter the time of day.”

The importance of cooking fresh food and avoiding dependence on high-calorie, processed food is at the heart of efforts to reduce obesity in France. It’s not complicated, says Catheline.

“Knowing how to cook might not keep you from being overweight,” he says, “but it will keep you from being obese.”

I think this is especially interesting when compared to the “French Paradox,” and you have both situations in the same country. I mean, granted, you could very well view the same comparison in the U.S., but the U.S. doesn’t have generations of people who view food the way France does; and the U.S. doesn’t have those kinds of people in positions of power the way France might.

If you’re not familiar with the French Paradox, it is simply this: “Why is it that the French can eat such terribly fattening* food, and still not be as overweight as we are in America?”

From Salon, circa 2000:

Last May, researchers writing in the British Medical Journal came up with the least cheerful hypothesis of all. They argued that it’s just a matter of time before the French — who are in fact eating more hamburgers and french fries these days — catch up with Americans, and begin suffering the same high rates of cardiovascular disease.

These researchers, Malcolm Law and Nicholas Wald (who must have thought up their hypothesis over dry kidney pie, while dreaming of the kind of duck in red wine and honey sauce I had with Claude Fischler), call this the “time lag explanation” for the French Paradox. As far as they are concerned, the McDonaldization (this is a French catch-all term for the importation of fast food and other American cultural horrors) of France will continue at a frantic pace, and it is as inevitable that French men will start keeling over of heart attacks as it is that French women will eventually wear jean shorts and marshmallow tennis shoes on the streets of Paris.

Now, there are a lot of cultural mores that we could discuss in regards to how certain cultures – like, for example, the French – view food (and any of you out there with additional insight, feel free to share… I have my thoughts but I certainly wouldn’t claim to know it all), but no matter what culture you’re observing, there’s always one constant: the food is as minimally processed as possible. It never fails.

So, in referring to the McDonaldization of France, I’m interested