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Other Reasons Why French Women Don't Get Fat

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Yes, there are those charming reasons "French Women Don't Get Fat," as outlined in the popular book of that name by Mireille Guiliano.  Portion control is key. Frenchwomen may eat their famously rich sauces and fatty pates with gusto, but only in dainty amounts. They go for quality over quantity and avoid "diet" foods -- said to drain off the hearty flavors that sate appetites. And, of course, they walk more.

But other reasons may be less charming. The scandal over the drug Mediator and the lax oversight of the French drug licensing agency point to other, less appealing weight-control practices. Mediator was licensed as a diabetes drug, which gave it cover for a less essential use -- as a diet pill. Allegedly damaging to hearts and lungs, it may have caused as many as 2,000 deaths and sent countless others to the hospital, according to government monitors. French officials took Mediator off the market two years ago, and now many question how it got there in the first place.

The answer, it appears, does not speak well of France's relatively laissez-faire drug regulatory system. Amazingly, members of the committee that approves drugs for the French market may also work for the pharmaceutical companies selling them. America's more stringent Food and Drug Administration is far less forgiving of such conflicts of interest. Such double-dealing is actually a crime.

The French press has focused on Mediator's maker, the secretive Laboratoires Servier, accused in the past of pushing dangerous weight-control products onto French women. Two of them involved the appetite suppressant fen-phen, which was blamed in this country for increased cases of heart-valve disease.

Another dietary aid for French women is cigarettes. (The decline of smoking in this country is often partly blamed for the rising incidence of obesity.) About seven years ago, Guiliano argued against that explanation, noting that 21 percent of Frenchwomen smoke, not far from the 20 percent of their American sisters who do. Recent statistics tell another story. Smoking rates among French women have risen from 20 percent to 26.5 percent, according to French anti-smoking advocates. Some say that tobacco-related diseases may become the leading cause of death for Frenchwomen by 2025.

Christelle Toure, who heads France's anti-tobacco campaign, has said that Frenchwomen's greatest fear in quitting smoking is that they will "fatten up." 

Cigarettes have long been regarded as an eating substitute by the weight-conscious -- of whom French women lead (forgive the pun) the pack. Though not officially French, actress Audrey Hepburn might as well have been. Her lifelong lithe figure was helped by a smoking habit of two or three packs a day. (On the set of "A Nun's Story," she reportedly chain-smoked while wearing a nun's habit.) Hepburn died at 63 of appendix cancer, a condition for which smoking is a major risk factor.

Like many French actresses, Hepburn glamorized on-screen smoking.  One of her iconic images, from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," has her dolled up in a large hat and little black dress, and with a long cigarette holder dangling from her mouth. That photo briefly landed on a stamp issued by Germany. It was withdrawn after Hepburn's son opposed the picture of his mother happily smoking and refused to grant the rights to use it.

Let it be noted that Audrey Hepburn remains one of our most admirable stars and started smoking long before surgeons general began issuing warnings. Furthermore, smoking by adults is the business of the adults.

But suffice it to say, Hepburn maintained her 110 pounds by doing more than avoiding Burger King Whoppers. And Frenchwomen don't get fat for some of the same reasons.



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