Jenny Craig in America vs. France – Cultural norms make all the difference

In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “French Women Worry About Getting Fat, Too” , American dieting customs have moved from across the Atlantic and into Europe.  The article discusses how Nestle has established it’s Jenny Craig brand into one of the healthiest countries, France.  The fact that dieting plans, such as Jenny Craig, is being implemented in France is intriguing.  This is because France has an extremely low obesity rate (14.5%) and has the highest percentage of underweight people in Western Europe. However, the obesity rate has been on the rise. In fact, 15 years ago the obesity rate in France was only 8.5%.  Compared to America, these numbers are remarkable.  The obesity rate in America is around 35%. However, if you account for both overweight and obese individuals, this accounts for nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population.  So the question is: What is the French secret for staying thin? And how can Jenny Craig possibly be successful in a country that has such different culinary customs?

The “French model” of eating couldn’t be more opposite from the way Americans are used to eating.  First off, the French are very proud of their exquisite cuisine and cooking skills.  Whereas most Americans are used to eating convenient, processed foods that require as little time to prepare as possible.  Secondly, the French believe meals should be a communal and social experience. This is drastically different from the American way of individualistic eating and eating focused only on the “self”.  Maybe American’s shouldn’t be as concerned with what’s on the table and more focused on who is at the table.  I think this is a revolutionary and brilliant idea to help battle the obesity problem in the U.S.  People shouldnt’ be snacking mindlessly while watching TV, in front of a computer screen, or driving to work.  Meals should be a conscious experience employing all the senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing) and stimulated with social interaction.

So what exactly is Jenny Craig?  Jenny Craig is a weight loss plan where clients receive frozen prepackaged meals delivered to their door or delivered to one of its many centers.  Meals are to be supplemented with fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. As the client gets closer and closer to their weight loss goal, the more non-Jenny Craig foods that can be incorporated into their diet.  Clients also meet individually with program consultants for education and support.  American consultants are required to be properly trained in the Jenny Craig mantra, whereas (interestingly) French consultants are required to be actual dietitians.  This is something I feel very strongly about. Maybe I am slightly biased because I am going to be a Registered Dietitian, but I think it is important for Jenny Craig consultants to have the proper nutrition education. (This would also offer up more jobs for RD’s!)

In France, however, it is not looked highly upon to be on a diet because, in theory, healthy foods and small portions should be a part of every day life (and not just a short-term answer).  French women who are on a diet tend to not mention it to anyone and instead just take smaller portions from the family style serving dish.  With this attitude towards dieting, it has been difficult for Jenny Craig to be successful in this country.

One of the most interesting cultural differences is the idea of snacking.   Americans are encouraged to eat six small meals a day, represented in the Jenny Craig program with “Anytime Bars”.  The French find the idea of snacking as preposterous and eat, at the most, three meals a day.  This stems from the French way of communal eating.  It makes sense…snacks are meant to be eaten by yourself and on the run. Something that the French simply don’t believe in.  Along the same lines, the French take on dessert consists mainly of fruit. Cakes, cookies, and other baked items are only for special occasions.

How has Jenny Craig attempted to carve its niche in French society? For one, the prepackaged meals offered in France are much more exquisite and tasty than the macaroni and cheese, cinnamon French toast, and chocolate cakes offered in the U.S.  Secondly, the packaging of the food is also more upscale.  The Jenny Craig meals in the U.S. are being delivered in cheap, white foam boxes while the French meals are served in a much more appealing and elegant patterned container (as shown below).

And lastly, the marketing scheme is being geared towards the French’s attitude and mindset toward life.  The French are traditionally very cynical and self-depricating, with one of the highest rates of depression throughout the country (based on medication usage).  Therefore, Jenny Craig has had to tweak its marketing plan towards a more pessimistic audience.  The French Jenny Craig website avoids slogans attempting to boost self-esteem, and instead focuses on more logical statements such as, “I did the Jenny Craig solution. It works!”

The food culture differences between the U.S. and France is completely fascinating.  Some people may be skeptical of the French’s approach to food.  However, when the statistics show the declining health of Americans are and the slimmer waist lines of the French, it’s pretty hard to ignore the facts.

For further reading on this topic, check out the book The French Don’t Diet Plan.