Tackling obesity means watching how - and not just what - we eat. French eating habits could be a good example for the UK

Ah,Paris. I finish my coffee, close my eyes and think hard. I want to remember this moment. Gustav Eiffel's masterpiece towers above me, its festive lights twinkle and shimmer. The Sacre Coeur floats on the horizon like a giant meringue. And the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter are drawing me into a sensual world of fresh-baked bread and delicious lunches.

And the attractions of Paris are not purely architectural. Many of its inhabitants are easy on the eye too. They are slim, elegant and well dressed. At least, that is the familiar stereotype of the urbane Parisian. Stereotypes are dangerous, but in reality, you do not have to look far to find someone who conforms. People here seem to be slimmer. While waistlines have steadily expanded in England over the last 20 years, French ones are spreading more slowly.

On both sides of the channel, we eat more than we need, do less than we once did and are more likely to spend our working days sitting down, rather than down a mine or in a field. So what accounts for the differences in weight? It is difficult to pinpoint. It cannot all be genetic, but relates to food and activity.

In part, it might have to do with the place of food in society. For the French, food needs to be savoured. Food should nurture the soul as well as the body, a colleague assured me. Eating together, for example, has cultural importance as well as nutritional purpose. And people seldom eat on the run here. Grabbing and cramming a sandwich is not a common sight.

Eating together

The pace of eating and its collective nature seem to make it a healthy activity. There is something about eating in front of others, a mutual surveillance that prevents us from eating too much or too badly. And perhaps there is a positive association between food and personal interaction we have yet to understand. Could eating alone be less nourishing?

In addition, the French diet is different. Yesterday, the people I ate with had side salads, fruit and small cuts of cheese. What they eat, as well as the way they eat it, seem to be healthier.

And maybe everyday life in France entails more physical effort. There seem to be fewer escalators in metro stations and climbing stairs is obligatory. There are well-used playgrounds in each neighbourhood. And a new city-wide cycling scheme is promoting exercise. Every quartier has a bank of bicycles for hire. A swipe of a card frees a bike for you to ride wherever you wish. Once it is safely docked at another place, a modest fee is charged and the bike is available for another user.

The scheme makes cycling a form of public transport. It creates an easy way to be active without the tedium or discipline associated with going to a gym. It also reduces congestion. Using the bikes is all the rage, making it a fashionable, as well as health-improving, activity.

In my enthusiasm, I do not want to ignore the fact that diabetes is rising in France and heart disease is a huge problem. France is not utopia. Like the UK, high streets are littered with fast food chains and poor people are forced to buy cheap, high-fat food.

However, there seems to be a recognition here that maintaining a good weight is as much about the environment and conditions in which we live as it is the food we put in our mouths. These principles should not be forgotten in our national efforts to fight the flab.