Don't bother counting calories – it will keep you as slim as the French



16:19 GMT, 24 April 2012

Oscar winner Marion Cotillard lives up to the 'thin French woman' stereotype

Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard lives up to the 'thin French woman' stereotype

At first it seems like a paradox on our plate – a study has found the French adopt a shoulder-shrugging attitude to reading nutrition labels on food while Americans scrutinise the calorie content.

Yet France has an obesity rate of just 12 per cent, which is three times lower than in the U.S.

The unusual finding suggests that the UK Government's drive to encourage food manufacturer's to provide clear labels may do little to encourage healthier eating habits.

For the study, scientists asked more than 300 French, Quebec, and American consumers to answer a questionnaire designed to test what they knew about dietary fats.

Questions dealt with the amount and
types of fat contained in various foods and what the nutritional
recommendations are regarding these fats. Participants were asked to
answer 'Don't know' rather than hazard a guess.

The scientists from the Universit Laval in Canada, Cornell University in New York and Centre de Recherche de l’Institut Paul Bocuse in cully, France, found French respondents said they didn't the answer to 43 per cent of the questions. This compared to just 13 per cent from Canada and four per cent from the U.S.

Fifty-five percent of French respondents
said they did not know the percentage of fat in whole milk, compared
with five per cent for Quebec and four per cent for the United States. The same trend was
observed for butter, margarine, and vegetable oils.

When the participants tried to answers, the Americans were most likely to be right, followed by the Canadians, with the French bringing up the rear.

Twice as many French respondents (17 per cent) didn't know the recommendations regarding avoiding saturated fats compared to unsaturated fats, as Americans (nine per cent.)

Woman looking at a bottle

Worth the bother Researchers believe aiming for a balance meal could be better than counting calories

Professor Maurice Doyon from Universit Laval said: 'The difference among respondents' knowledge essentially indicates that the French don't take much of an interest in the nutrients contained in the foods they eat. The information is on the package, but they don't read it.'

According to the researchers, the
correlation found between extensive nutritional knowledge and high
obesity rates suggests that focusing on detailed nutritional information
may not be the best strategy for encouraging healthy eating habits.

'It's an approach that presents
information to consumers in a broken down form,' suggested Dr Doyon.

'This may lead them to think of food in terms of its fat, carbohydrate,
and caloric content and lose sight of the whole picture. It might be
better to focus on what constitutes a healthy, complete, and balanced

The researchers reported their findings in a recent edition of the
British Food Journal.