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French Getting Fatter - Is the 'French Paradox' Threatened?

Eaters the world over have long envied the so-called French paradox - the ability of French to eat rich meals, yet remain thin, and boast one of the world's lowest heart disease rates. But new findings indicate that even the French are beginning to put on some kilos.

France may fret over its lost stature in international affairs, that Hollywood monopolizes its movie theaters, and that English - not French - dominates diplomatic and business talks in Europe and elsewhere.

But the French have always trumped their American and British rivals in being able to consume seemingly endless quantities of foie gras, brie and Bordeaux wine while maintaining size-2 silhouettes. No longer.

Today, the envied French paradox is threatened by new findings from the Paris-based National Institute of Health and Medical Research that 40 percent of French are overweight or obese. French obesity rates remain among the lowest in Europe, but perhaps not for much longer, according to French researcher Arnaud Basdevant.

"In 15 years if the trend continues," Mr. Basdevant said, "the numbers of fat French may match those in the United States, where one third of the population is obese."

According to the study, the average French person has gained almost two kilograms since 1997. As in other industrialized countries, the extra weight generally falls on the poorest slice of society, those more likely to consume less expensive pasta and potato chips, for example, than fish and vegetables.

Mr. Basdevant said reasons for the extra weight are not hard to find. French are exercising less, and eating more junk food. Even French President Jacques Chirac is not immune to a fast-food fix. Mr. Chirac flipped hamburgers in the United States as a youth, and says he still comes back from U.S. trips a few extra kilos heavier from junk food binges.

"Paradoxically, the demise of the traditional two-hour lunch in France has also had a fattening effect," said Mr. Basdevant. "Harassed French workers are sometimes skipping meals, then making up the loss with high-calorie snacks. People also tend to consume less during long lunches, he says, which are devoted more to chewing slowly and talking than to swallowing."

The French weight survey adds new urgency to a national resizing campaign now under way across France. Launched by the French Institute of Textiles and Clothes, the 18-month road campaign is taking pictures of French of all sizes and shapes in high-tech measuring cabins. The results, out by 2005 at the latest, will likely change department store sizes, not to mention upcoming fashions.