Take a look at your child’s school photo and you’ll almost certainly spot a few pupils who are overweight or even obese.
You might assume this is an inevitable side-effect of modern life, given all we hear about unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks aimed at children.
But in my 13-year-old daughter’s class, there’s not a single fat kid. And there never has been, since she started nursery, age three.
Why? Because she goes to school in France, where I and my French wife have lived for years. And in France, they don’t see childhood obesity as a mysterious, insurmountable problem — they see it as simply unacceptable.
Yes, my daughter has gone to good schools in well-off Montpellier and nice parts of Paris, but her mother is a teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis, the most impoverished part of the capital, and none of the children there are fat either.
That’s because the French — parents, teachers and the government — have worked together to stop the problem.
Vending machines are banned, as are packed lunches — except for children with allergies. Instead, everyone eats in the cafeteria, where meals are usually decided by a staff nutritionist to ensure pupils get a balanced diet.
My daughter’s school posts weekly menus online. One day she could choose between pâté or green salad with gruyère to start, fish or veal with vegetables as a main course, and cheese or natural yoghurt for dessert. To drink, there is nothing but water.
Mums and dads can see the menu too, of course, and many plan suppers to complement lunch.
My sister-in-law, who is French but lives in England with her three children, sees the British version of this. She loves our country except for one thing. Food — or more precisely, our relationship with it.
Her kids, who are aged five, seven and ten, go to a good school with a sensible approach to eating but even so are served calorific puddings each day. Chocolate sponge, sticky toffee pudding, treacle tart — it drives her to distraction.
Like my daughter, she was brought up in Paris where food is respected, not scoffed. Dessert is a treat for special occasions.
In Britain, food is fuel. A sandwich for lunch at your desk, and junk food in the evening to match whatever trash is on telly. In between there’s a packet of crisps here, a bar of chocolate there. We know we shouldn’t but many of us lack the strength to say ‘no’.
That’s because we see food as instant gratification, denied as long as possible then devoured in a few hasty, hungry bites.
For the French, food is to be savoured and enjoyed. Their self-control over treats arises from this attitude, and they find our gluttony and resulting struggles with our weight astonishing.
A United Nations study last month revealed Britain to be the third fattest nation in Europe, behind Malta and Turkey. A quarter of us are now obese and the widening of waistlines is no more evident than in our children.
A 2017 government report stated that nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese. Public Health England reported this year that obesity levels among ten and 11-year-olds have reached a record high.
In some London boroughs 50 per cent of this age group are obese, meaning that unless they take drastic action they face an adulthood blighted by diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
Meanwhile in France, child obesity rates — never that high in the first place — are actually falling, with the Ministry of Health reporting last year that only 3.5 per cent are obese.
How have they managed this? It’s not that their kids can’t get their hands on plenty of treats.
They may have a croissant for breakfast, a crepe at tea-time and an eclair at dinner, but what doesn’t exist in France is snacking. My sister-in-law tells me this is because it diminishes the shared enjoyment of meal times.
Family meals are important, and instil in children a mature appreciation of food — and crucially, discipline in how they eat.
My friend Stephanie grew up in Rennes, Brittany, where she was given healthy eating advice at school 30 years ago.
It’s wisdom she now passes on to her two boys. ‘It’s not just about what we eat but how we eat it,’ she says. ‘The manners that we bring to the table, the time we take over food. It should be enjoyable, and not done in front of the TV.’ In Britain, by contrast, it increasingly feels like responsible parenting of any kind is frowned upon.
The French understand that being a parent is not just about loving a child, it’s also about educating and controlling them.
I’ve never heard a French parent refer to their child as ‘mate’, yet I do in Britain. How can you tell a child who is also your best friend how to make healthy choices that may be less fun than unhealthy ones? You can’t. A report in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour highlighting the rise in childhood obesity, said parents were filling their children’s lunchboxes with ‘what they knew would be enjoyed and eaten, rather than what was necessarily healthy’.
‘Children’s role in their packed lunch provision highlights their growing authority over everyday food decisions,’ said Dr Hannah Ensaff, the report’s author.
So says a friend of mine, Julie, a pilates teacher in North London, whose six-year-old twins eat well at school. Canteen menus feature nutritious food including lots of vegetables and fruit, washed down only with water.
‘The school is really making an effort to ensure the children eat well,’ she tells me. ‘But they can’t control what happens outside. I have a friend whose kids never drink water “because they don’t like it”. So they live on these terrible sugary drinks.’
What must doctors and teachers think, as they try to fight this deadly epidemic (obesity will soon overtake smoking as the leading preventable cause of cancer in women) as mums launch an online petition to bring back Turkey Twizzlers?
Yes, it’s true. The woman behind the petition said. ‘To think my kids will never experience the taste of them makes me want to get this petition as far as possible.’
Is it really so harmful to indulge in naughty foods at the expense of being slim and healthy? I think it is. There is nothing ‘fabulous’ about being fat. You are eating yourself into an early grave.
The French for fat-shaming is grossophobie and they see nothing wrong in telling the fatties a few home truths. A fat-shaming awareness group founder in France says she suffers regular discrimination; once on asking for a croissant the baker said ‘Are you sure?’, looking her up and down with Gallic disdain.
Cruel? Maybe, but sometimes it’s cruel to be kind, particularly when children’s health is at risk.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.