Vive la différence!

Posted on July 6, 2012 at 6:50 am

Here we are on the cusp of the Summer Olympics, when some of the most amazing bodies from around the world meet in a glorious show of spandex. One marvels at how cultural barriers can all but disappear in the name of peak physical performance (among other daydreams).

Meanwhile, another international comparison caught our attention – the way one weight loss company leverages cultural norms to keep people engaged in a diet plan. Surely there are cross cultural insights we might gain and apply in our national fight against obesity.

This recent article profiles how Jenny Craig operates in the U.S. compared to its operations in France. Each approach in diet plan design and marketing is carefully developed to speak to the traditions our respective cultures hold dear, for right or wrong.

For example, the American version of the diet plan emphasizes generous portion sizes, the promise of freedom in meal plans, and low-cal versions of sinful American favorites. It’s all positioned in a way suggesting that participants hardly need to change their lifestyle and eating habits at all – you can still eat what you want, when you want it, and you’ll nevertheless shed those extra pounds. There’s even that sweet sensation of getting away with something – after all, how could it be possible to have a chocolate bar on a diet plan?

On the other hand, the French version of the diet plan works hard to respect elements of their culinary traditions, such as holding sacred the idea of a communal meal and a suspicion of random snacking. There’s no chocolate and peanut butter “Anytime Bar” on the Jenny Craig menu in Paris.

So what could we Americans in pursuit of maintaining a healthy weight learn from the French Jenny Craig approach? We love the concept of social reinforcement of healthy dining habits, which make pig-out sessions seem embarrassing. We also like the idea of enforcing eating as an event rather than something you do on your way to someplace or something else. Plus there are the little things like making the meal packaging feel classy and presentable, making this move towards a healthier diet fit into our otherwise style-conscious lives. And perhaps one of the best ideas we’d like to see cribbed from France is this slogan from Weight Watchers France: “Stop the diets. Relearn how to eat.” Sage wisdom no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on.

What might the French learn from the American approach, now that Jennie Craig and other American weight loss exports have found a market there? For one, they’re proving that systems can become part of a person’s lifestyle and force good habits to take root.

The American approach also offers a sense of optimism and a plucky “can-do” attitude, making dieting seem like a way to wrangle a sense of control over a busy, demanding lifestyle that is often to blame for those extra pounds. Oh, and we can’t help but point out a minor detail in this article that has huge health implications – the French still out-smoke Americans by a significant margin.

These are all ideas worth chewing over, especially for those of us in the business of encouraging people to make tough changes to one of the most fundamental parts of our respective cultures – the way we eat.

Bon appetite!

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