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Frog legs versus peanut butter

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Frog Legs Versus Peanut Butter

Attitudes and eating habits among adolescents on both sides of the Atlantic

by Denise Quirk Baillot


Historically, France and the United States show strong differences in eating customs, attitudes and habits as well as in obesity rates. However, if there are differences between these two Western countries in eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, they are yet to be identified. A recent study of 1,073 French teenagers and 1,573 American teenagers was the subject of Denise Quirk Baillot’s doctoral project. Its objectives were to identify and compare the cultural and dietary factors as well as weight problems and eating disorders. Denise conducted the study in collaboration with researchers from both sides of the ocean: Martine Flament (GHRI, Ottawa), Nathalie Godart (INSERM, Paris), Angelina Allen (Stanford, Calif.) and Brigitte Remy (MGEN, Paris).


Previously, several studies of the adult population (ref. 1,2,3,4,5) had already revealed differences in eating habits, attitudes and customs between the two countries. According to these studies, the French have fewer complexes about certain foods than the Americans. For example, the word "egg" for the French was associated with the word "omelet" while Americans associate "egg" more often with the word "cholesterol." It is clear that French adults find meals more pleasurable and take more time, eating together with their families, friends and colleagues. The portions of food are larger in the United States, Americans snack more, and they less often prepare traditional homemade dishes that are nicely presented and served at the table.



“Yeah, I‘m careful about what I eat.”

© Théo Guichaoua


For adolescents, it’s the same thing

Quirk Baillot’s thesis found the following differences in adolescents: the French have healthier attitudes to food. They skip meals less often, for example. Missing meals is considered unbalanced by nutritionists because it is associated with consumption of sugary soft drinks, fast food, fatty foods and a lower intake of nutrient-rich foods (6). It could lead to snacking throughout the day, deficiencies or even bulimic crises. French adolescents have family meals more often. Previous studies of Neumark - Sztainer et al. (7, 8) have shown that eating more often with family (regular meals, and structured in a positive mood) was associated with lower incidence of symptoms of eating disorders. The work of Denise Quirk Baillot et al. also shows that "homemade" meals with fresh produce are more prevalent with the French. Another feature  is snacking. Americans eat more chips and crackers. The French eat fruit for dessert while Americans would rather nibble throughout the day.


Differences between the sexes

According to the Quirk Baillot study, girls are much more sensitive to calories and fat content in food and the French girls show a lot more vigilance. They are less tempted by the sweet soft drinks that are consumed with little moderation in the United States and which are a significant factor in obesity. However, French boys drink as many sugary soft drinks as American boys and girls. It should be noted that the concern about the number of calories in foods is generally found in the patient(s) who have an eating disorder. Instead of dealing compulsively with calories and fat levels or sugar, it is recommended to focus attention, in an unstressful manner, on a balanced diet, the variety of natural foods and the portions of protein, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, dairy products. Desserts can be included - even if it's only (and especially!) for pleasure, but in smaller quantities and at the end of a balanced meal.


The fast-food cycle. D. R.


A divergent concept of healthy diet between the two countries

Overall, adolescents of both countries agree on the principle of a healthy diet and want to recognize efforts to eat a balanced diet. But in practice, these good intentions do not always translate into actions. For Americans, a healthy diet is synonymous with industrial low-fat meals or calories (these include foods in which fat or natural sugars are replaced by chemicals), whereas for the French, it is fresh, homemade food. According to the researcher Pollan (9), the "American paradox" is obvious: while they are known to eat in an unbalanced way, Americans are obsessed with the idea of eating healthily.



“Yes, but it’s all reduced calorie!”

© Théo Guichaoua


Weight and eating disorders

Comparing average weight confirms that French young people have fewer problems with obesity and being overweight than Americans—at least for now. In terms of clinical eating disorders, the Quirk Baillot study of the total number of cases in a population at a given time or as a prevalence is similar in the two countries and is similar to the results of other studies conducted worldwide (10,11). In this study, the presence of symptoms without meeting all the criteria for clinical diagnosis of eating disorder or partial syndrome was approximately five percent for anorexia and 16.5 percent for bulimia in the adolescent population. These figures are alarming and should mobilize the medical profession. Action should be taken to prevent these disorders.


A healthy eating trend in France that could decline

The study finds that American teenagers eat at restaurants more often than the French. Meals outside the home are associated with greater food portions but that are less rich in nutrients (12, 13). However, adolescents of both countries eat as much fast food and with the same frequency. Note that the French group studied is from primarily from around Paris whereas the U.S. group represents several regions: the study’s authors wonder if this result and the other results mentioned above reflect a trend throughout the France.

Until recently, the French reputation for a balanced diet and traditional customs was well established. This study shows that some of the traditions of healthy eating habits are now changing and tending to give way to other, rather bad habits. Times are changing... would you like some more beef bourguignon?


For more information:

Bulimia and anorexia: two eating disorders

Bulimia is an eating disorder that is expressed by binge crises, during which the patient compulsively ingests a large amount of food in a short time. It is accompanied by a feeling of loss of control. These crises are alternated with periods of fasting or draconian attempts to eliminate the ingested food from the digestive system. The removal can be done by the ingestion of diuretics or inducing vomiting. These binge foods are often "forbidden" because of their high levels of fat, sugar or calories. The concept of pleasure is excluded.

Anorexia, meanwhile, is a disorder mainly defined by the refusal to eat enough and weight well below the threshold of normal.



1. Rozin P, Remick AK, Fischler C. Broad Themes of Difference between French and Americans in Attitudes to Food and Other Life Domains: Personal Versus Communal Values, Quantity Versus Quality , Comforts and Joys Versus . Front. Psychol. 2011, 2:177.

2. Rozin P. The meaning of food in our lives: a cross-cultural perspective on eating and well-being. J. Nutr. Educ. Behav. December 2005, 37 Suppl 2: S107- 112.

3. Rozin P, Geier AB. Fewer Want Fries with that? Chron. High. Educ. Washington, DC, 2007 Apr 6.

4. Rozin P, Fischler C , Imada S, Sarubin A, Wrzesniewski A. Attitudes to food and the role of food in life in the USA, Japan, Flemish Belgium and France: Possible implications for the diet-health debate. Appetite. October 1999, 33 (2):163-80.

5. Rozin P, Kabnick K, Pete E, Fischler C, Shields C. The ecology of eating: smaller portion sizes in France Than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychol. Sci. 2003, 14 (5):450-4.

6. Larson NI , Nelson MC , Neumark - Sztainer D , Story M , Hannan PJ . Making time for meals: meal structure and associations with dietary intake in young adults. J. Am Diet. Assoc. January 2009, 109 (1):72-9.

7. Neumark - Sztainer D. Preventing obesity and eating disorders in adolescents: what can health care providers do? J. Adolesc. Heal. Off. Publ. Soc. Adolesc. Med. March 2009, 44 (3):206-13.

8. Neumark - Sztainer D, Wall M, Story M, Fulkerson JA. Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? J. Adolesc. Health. 2004 Nov, 35 (5):350-9.

9. Mr. Pollan Our National Eating Disorder | Michael Pollan. N. Y. Times Mag. [Internet]. 17 October 2004 [Cited 2012 Sep 19] Available from: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/our-national-eating-disorder/Nouvelle fenêtre

10. Hoek HW. Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Curr. Opin. Psychiatry. 2006 Jul, 19 (4):389-94.

11. Hoek HW, van Hoeken D. Review of the prevalence and incidence of eating disorders. Int. J. Eat. Disord. December 2003, 34 (4):383-96.

12. Naska A, Orfanos P, Trichopoulou A, May AM, Overvad K, Jakobsen MU, et al. Eating out, weight and weight gain. A cross -sectional and prospective analysis in the context of the EPIC- PANACEA study. Int. J. Obes . 2005. 2011 Mar, 35 (3):416-26.

13. Guthrie JF, Lin B- H, Frazao E. Prepared food away from home is Increasing and found to be less nutritious. Nutr. Res. Newsl . 2002 Aug, 10-11.



The full text of the thesisNouvelle fenêtre.


Denise Quirk Baillot is from California. She holds a Master’s from Chapman University (California) and has recently defended his thesis at UPMC. A psychologist specializing in eating disorders, she first worked near Los Angeles before moving to Paris after her marriage to a Frenchman in 1997. When she arrived in France, she discovered that what she advised her patients in the U.S. was common behavior in France (three meals at regular times, in good company, with reasonable portions, and eating with pleasure), which was, in part, her motivation to pursue a PhD. Her doctoral project was conducted as part of the Department of Psychiatry of the adolescent and young adult (Inserm Unit 669) at the Mutualiste Montsouris Institute (Cochin Hospital). She current has a private practice at the Counseling Center at the American Cathedral in Paris. She treats both anglophone and francophone patients.


image: © Théo Guichaoua