Different motivations behind diets in America and in France

Different motivations behind diets in America and in France

Americans are obsessed with calorie-counting and fat-free food. However, the biggest difference between diets in America and France lies in the public attitudes.

A couple of days ago, I read an article that encouraged me to download a calorie-counting app. In MyNetDiary, I’m now entering my daily food choices and exercise units, and the app gives me recommendations about my caloric intake. It’s a great app, really! For years, my BMI has placed me in a somewhat unspeakable place, and I’m fully aware that snacking is my weakness. However, being able to read what my snacks mean in terms of saturated fat has really helped me control my lust for cookies.

With this anecdote, I’d like to point out that counting myself in the group of overweight people doesn’t make me less aware of the paradox of American food: it’s fat-free but at the same time too sweet to be healthy.

Europeans have a less flattering image of Americans

In both France and Germany, the US stereotype is overweight American children and adults. Colas, burgers, and pizzas are often synonymous with the United States. When I relocated to America in 2013, it was hard to escape fast-food chains and vending machines with chips and sodas. According to 2016 figures cited in the CIA World Factbook, 36.2% of Americans are considered to be obese.

Now, 4 years later, I’ve developed a routine in American supermarkets. Still, finding plain yogurts and avoiding sugar in processed food is almost impossible. I’ve talked at length about it: Read more about bad American food here and food coloring here.

How on earth did the American diet get here?

America is a nation of immigrants, and many of them imported their food culture to the US. Besides burgers, pizza is probably considered the national dish by many Americans. Tacos might also make the list. In Italy, France, and Germany, the obesity rate is significantly lower than in the US. Why didn’t their food traditions work for their descendants living in the United States?

Obesity rate in 2016

Percent of a country's population considered to be obese. Obesity is defined as an adult having a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater to or equal to 30.0. The BMI is calculated by taking a person's weight in kg and dividing it by the person's squared height in meters.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2016
Country Rate
USA36.2 %
Germany22.3 %
France21.6 %
Italy19.9 %

In the TV show The Little House On The Prairie (which I loved watching when I was a child), the Ingalls family shares meals at the table in every single episode. How did this tradition become less and less important for Americans?

My family and I have wonderful Thanksgiving memories with friends and lots of homemade food. Our friend Virginia made an amazing lamb leg after January’s 2016 blizzard, which we devoured with great delight after a 20-minute march in deep snow. Every month, my friend Margaret will spend time cooking many meals in advance for her husband and herself. Why do the majority of Americans avoid cooking and rely more and more on fast-food?

The origin of weight control in America

In a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Sarah Lohman, author of a blog dedicated to cooking traditions, said that “Americans have always been heavier than [their] Europeans counterparts. However, being ‘plump as a partridge’ used to be a compliment.”

Lohman explains the series of changes that affected the American diet. First, when the corset went out of fashion, many women felt unhappy with their natural shapes. Worse, with growing industrialization came off-the-rack clothes, which made it easier to compare dress sizes.

As jobs became more sedentary, Americans gained weight even while scientific researchers made significant progress in terms of quantifying calories, vitamins, and minerals. When the personal scale became popular, people had a way monitor their own weight. “By the 1920s, dieting and calorie counting were part of daily life,” said Lohman.

Although this progression sounds logical, it still creates a paradox: a country obsessed with calorie counting like the US still has so many overweight people.

Why is obesity less of a problem in Europe?

Diet and weight control are recurring topics in the European media. After the holidays or in the spring, women’s magazines often feature promises of new, revolutionary diets.

However, there is a myth about French women who only eat in moderation and never gain weight. The bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat has certainly propagated the story, and it’s true that many French women—and men—watch their weight carefully. However, the obesity rate is rising in France from 18.2% in 2008 to 21.6% in 2016.

In an essay for the European Journal of American Studies called “Reading American Fat in France: Obesity and Food Culture,” author Laura Knowlton-Le Roux explains that attitudes toward obesity in France or in the US vary largely:

“In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the US and France shared an emphasis on the relationship between diet and overall health. … The diets one may find in French nineteenth-century documents are every bit as draconian as American diets from the same period. But what French and American diets have never shared is the moralizing tone and relentless association of overeating with personal ethic failure, a trait that is present in the United States.”

Different motivations behind diets in America and in France

Beauty and body aesthetics are the motivation for weight control in France. But, in America, overweight people are frequently caricatured as lazy and incompetent. According to Knowlton-Le Roux, “In democratic, Protestant America, success in maintaining one’s appearance has long been presented as a personal and moral responsibility, accessible to everyone.“

I’m not aware of anything comparable in France or Germany. Former German Secretary of State, Joschka Fischer, lost, gained, and lost weight again during his political career. Former French Senate president and longtime senator Gérard Larcher has been overweight for years. The French or Germans often smile at their love for food, but it’s simply unimaginable to persecute them the way late US president Taft was by many members of the public. Weighing 340 pounds, “Taft was mocked not only by rival politicians but also by members of his own White House staff and openly criticized by his wife,” said Knowlton-Le Roux.

While researching for this article, I checked out the reality show “The Biggest Loser“ and was speechless when I found the weight, BMI, and other stats about the candidates in the related Wikipedia article. I double-checked the German version, which had no weight information at all.

Some final words

America has another issue with food that Europe doesn’t. For most people in the US, eating is not viewed as a pleasure like it is for the French, nor is it an occasion to spend time together as in many other countries. In the US, the dominant conception of food is nutritional (i.e. calorie counting). However, campaigns promoting healthier eating habits also seem to gain traction. For example, the consumption of sugary sodas has dropped to a 30-year low. Sales of diet sodas have also dropped, and America’s love for fast-food chains has slowed down. Will a sugar phobia soon replace Americans’ fat-free obsession?

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  • Catherine, I really enjoyed reading this blog today. When I visited Spain and Italy in past years, I noticed two other differences between their “food culture” and ours in America: first, the serving sizes were quite a bit smaller for breakfast (tiny cup of espresso and a plain non-sugary roll) and “dinner” was served in courses on small plates in the afternoon, not evening. Additionally, in the evening, when many Americans are eating their largest meal late and watching TV, their Spanish and Italian counterparts are strolling on the sidewalks till 11 p.m. or so. Too bad our culture does not build in such a leisurely lunch break and time to take a nap. Seems to me there would be a lot less road rage and fewer crabby people at work if more naps were taken. That’s a topic for another blog! Which adults nap more: Germans, French or Americans?

  • Hello Catherine! This is a huge issue to tackle with so many sides to discuss. You’ve done a great job. I think it’s crazy that 36% of Americans are obese. That’s really sad. I know there are so many families out there that lack either the education and/or funds to make healthy choices for their loved ones and that plays into it as well. And the 24/7 culture of something always being open in the US. A quick smoothie here and a small muffin there all add up. And if we’re not moving, it comes down to simple math. Calories in versus calories burned. Europe is definitely more mindful of their food choices — mealtime is at the table — and is something to be enjoyed, with family. Although there are quite a bunch of heavy folks in France, as well. The good thing, though, is that it’s never too late to change our eating and exercise habits. Thanks for putting the spotlight on this.

    • Yes, the French are getting heavier. While the obesity rate in Italy is stable, it’s rising in France. I wonder why?

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