Myth busting: Half of French adults are now overweight

The reputation that the French have slim waistlines appears overblown with new figures revealing that around half of adults in the country are overweight, and one in six registering as obese.

Myth busting: Half of French adults are now overweight
A model at the Pulp Fiction fashion show in Paris that represents society's diverse spectrum . Photo: AFP
The French, if the reputation is to be believed, manage to keep perfect waistlines all their lives.
But new figures suggest the longstanding reputation, that has been the subject of books like Why French Women don't Get Fat, is more myth than reality (or perhaps just based on a wealthy Paris elite).
The figures released on Tuesday reveal that over the age of 30, some 56.8 percent of French men are overweight or obese and 40.9 percent of French women of the same age also tip the scales as obese or overweight. 
This comes from a study carried out by French researchers at the journal Bulletin épidémiologique hebdomadaire (BEH).
Researchers weighed 30,000 French people for the study, finding that 15.8 percent of the men classified as obese compared to 15.6 percent of women. 
“This excess weight is a public health problem,” researcher Sébastien Czernichow told Le Figaro newspaper.
He noted, however, that while being overweight had links to diabetes and cardiovascular risks, having a high Body Mass Index didn't necessarily come with such health risks. 
With hearty national dishes like fondue, tartiflette, andouillette, plus all the croissants and pain au chocolats, not to mention the macarons and the cheese, the French could be forgiven for bursting out of their trouser buttons.
The great Gallic grub that's surprisingly healthy
Indeed, some people who register as obese according to the scale, which is a ratio of weight and height, were found to be “metabolically healthy”.
Researchers said they didn't have comparable data to determine whether obesity was becoming worse in France, but said they “feel the situation has improved a little”. 
Age is one of the biggest risk factors with obesity, the study noted, with the proportion of obesity of people at the age of 30 around half that of those at the age of 60.
The study also noted that people with higher incomes were more likely to be in better shape. In fact, one in four of those earning a salary of under €1,000 a month were obese, compared to just one in ten of those earning over €4,200. 
The statistics come after study published last week by Eurostat that found France to be slightly better than the EU average when it came to obesity, with 15.3 percent of French adults obese compared to 15.9 percent across the union. 
The obesity rate in Britain was 20.1 percent, one of the highest in Europe along with Hungary, Latvia and Malta (26 percent).
The Eurostat figures showed that 15.3 percent of French men over the age of 18 were obese, a figure that was exactly the same for women of the same age. 
The EU average for obesity was at 16.1 percent of the adult population for men and 15.7 percent for women, both higher than in France. 
People with a BMI (body mass index) of 25 and higher are classified as overweight, while those with a BMI over 30 are obese. 

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!