Forget the long lunch break. Abandon all thoughts of stopping off at a little boulangerie and your local traiteur to pick up the wherewithal to make dinner for your loved ones. Those days are gone. From Dunkirk to Perpignan, from Nantes to Lyon, fast food is all the rage across la belle France.

New evidence suggests that the French are turning their backs on age-old patterns of behaviour that have earned France its reputation as the home of fine food and the people who love it.

Image: McKinsey

According to the OECD, France has relatively low levels of obesity – but they’re on the rise. Approximately 10% of people in France are obese. But almost 40% are overweight and the OECD predicts a 10% increase within 10 years.

Now, French parliamentarians, concerned for the health of the nation and alarmed by the country’s changing eating habits, are considering what action to take.

A changing diet

A cross-party committee of 29 MPs (commission d’enquête sur l’alimentation industrielle) looked into eating habits, the nutritional content of processed food, and the health implications of a diet high in convenience. Their investigations concluded that almost half of French adults (49%) were overweight or obese in 2015; the rate of obesity was 17.2% for both men and women, while the prevalence of overweight (excluding obesity) was higher among men (37.1%) than women (26.8%).

The changing eating habits of the French are an interesting demonstration of the way in which people’s time, particularly during the working day, is being squeezed. With less time at their disposal, office workers in particular turn to la malbouffe (junk food) for a fast, filling fix.

A staggering 1.46 billion burgers were enjoyed across France last year, and you can find them on the menu of 85% of the country’s restaurants. Sales of fast-food hit €51 billion ($59bn) in 2017 – that’s an increase of 260% over the last 13 years.

Michèle Crouzet, one of the lead members of the French parliamentary committee looking into the issue of the country’s changing diet, said the daily intake of salt in France is also a problem – at about 10 to 12 grams, it is double the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. A diet too high in salt can lead to strokes and cardiovascular disease, which is one of the biggest killers in France.

The price of a bad diet

According to figures compiled by McKinsey & Co, the global cost of obesity has risen to $2 trillion per year. The McKinsey Global Institute report says around one-third of the world’s population is obese – by 2030, that could have risen to almost half.

Obesity is now one of the biggest threats to health and prosperity.
Image: McKinsey

While being overweight has long been seen as a malady affecting affluent parts of the world, there is growing concern that emerging economies are seeing an explosion in obesity rates.

McKinsey analysed historical data relating to lost productivity and shortened life-expectancy by looking at lost disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). The World Health Organization (WHO) says: “One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of ‘healthy’ life. The sum of these DALYs across the population, or the burden of disease, can be thought of as a measurement of the gap between current health status and an ideal health situation where the entire population lives to an advanced age, free of disease and disability.”

In developed nations, the increase in lost DALYs started to slow toward the end of the 20th century, whereas it began to accelerate in parts of the developing world. In Indonesia, the number of DALYs lost due to obesity per 100,000 people rose from 184 in 1990 to 885 in 2010. That’s an increase of about 400% increase over two decades.

Emerging economies are now at risk from an obesity epidemic.
Image: McKinsey

One consequence of an increase in ill-health caused by obesity will be the additional pressure placed on healthcare systems. Spending on healthcare among OECD nations could grow by anything between 50% and 100% by 2040. The WHO estimates that patients with high body-mass scores may be responsible for as much as 7% of global healthcare spending. This risks placing unsustainable burdens on national governments’ budgets, particularly when combined with other pressures, such as the demands of an ageing population or generally unfavourable economic circumstances.

So, regardless of whether you’re reading this in France or not, maybe next time you decide to treat yourself to a burger you should order yourself a side-salad too, and try to maintain a healthy balance.