Poster campaign aims to show French that they do get fat

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The Independent Online

A health problem which once dared not speak its name has risen to the top of the public agenda in France.

Obesity was traditionally seen by the French as the scourge of the burger-eating Americans and the chip-butty-loving British. Now spreading waist-lines - especially amongst French children - have prompted a series of warnings by ministers and campaigns by health pressure groups.

The Health Minister, Xavier Bertrand, has officially named obesity as one of France's "great health challenges of the 21st century". An anti-obesity pressure group has produced a series of disturbing posters showing a naked and grossly overweight woman under the title: "Obesity kills. Do you still find it funny?"

France, which prides itself on healthy eating habits, remains far behind the United States and Britain in the global league tables of obesity. In America, 40 per cent of people are considered clinically obese, compared to 30 per cent in Britain and 11.3 per cent in France.

However, the percentage of obese French adults has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. The number of overweight French children is increasing by 17 per cent a year. At that rate, France could have as many dangerously fat citizens in 2020 as the US today, according to one government survey.

Arnaud Basdevant, head nutritionist at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris, blames France's increasingly sedentary life-style and taste for supermarket foods high in sugar and fat. Although many French people still cherish fresh food, there is an increasing trend towards processed and convenience foods and fast-food restaurants.

Another recent survey reported that the problem is especially acute among undereducated and economically deprived social groups and regions. Grossly overweight people are seldom seen in Paris. They are increasingly common in poor suburbs and rural areas. Last September, the government banned the installation in schools of vending machines that sell sweets and fizzy drinks. Earlier this month, volunteer paediatricians held a "national weighing day" in schools in 80 towns and cities to try to advise children, and parents, on good eating habits.

"Talking about nutrition has become politically correct, when as recently as the 1990s it was seen as a woman's issue," said Serge Hereberg, vice-president of the strategy committee of the national nutrition programme, launched in 2001. He recommends that people should eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day and perform daily exercise equivalent to 30 minutes of rapid walking.

M. Bertrand, the Health Minister, has announced that a new nutrition strategy will be published in March, aimed at those regions and social groups considered to be "at risk".