La Difference

Smaller portions may explain the “French paradox" of rich foods and a svelte population.
April 25, 2003

Just 7 percent of French adults are overweight, as compared with 22 percent of Americans, and proportionally far fewer people die of heart disease in France. For more than a decade, American dieters and scientists have wondered--not with a little envy--how the French get away with eating rich sauces, buttery croissants, and creamy cheeses and still remain thinner and healthier. At first they thought the wine, or maybe the olive oil, explained the "French paradox." But psychology professor Paul Rozin says there's really no paradox at all, unless you assume that fat is the major cause of obesity and cardiovascular disease. Current research is showing fat to be less of a risk factor than previously believed. "While the French eat more fat than Americans, they probably eat slightly fewer calories," he says, "which when compounded over years, can amount to substantial differences in weight [gain]."

Together with two College students (Kimberly Kabnick, C'01, L'04, and Erin Pete, C'01) and some Parisian researchers, Rozin, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor for Faculty Excellence, compared the eating habits of diners in both countries.

For the study, investigators went with digital scales into restaurants and fast-food outlets on both continents and weighed each item served. "We saw what every tourist knows," Rozin points out, "but we measured it. Not only are the portions [25 percent] smaller in France, people spend more time eating." The portion appraisers also compared serving sizes in cookbooks and single-serve foods in supermarkets, and again found Americans eating more. If they like the food, people tend to eat all of what's put in front of them, Rozin explains. "Much discussion of the 'obesity epidemic' in the U.S. has focused on personal willpower, but our study shows that the environment also plays an important role."