Everyone has heard the story about the city girl who thought milk came from the supermarket rather than from a cow. But have you heard about the girl from London, United Kindgom (UK), who thought rhubarb was an onion?

Frightening, but it's true. That little discovery was made by UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently during a four-part TV series on UK's Channel 4. Oliver delved into school meals to show parents the “rubbish” their kids were eating at school and in the process discovered a complete lack of understanding about what food is or does.

In the UK, with only 25 pence (43¢) spent/kid/day on average for school lunches, foods were mostly fat, sugar and salt rather than the nutritious foods parents assumed their kids were eating. Oliver showed parents how kids eat — not only at school but also junk food snacks at home and supermarket-prepared meals at dinner — is a big part of what causes childhood obesity. In a media-dominated society, it took a celebrity chef to get kids and parents alike to stand up and notice.

Cutting out junk food may not seem like rocket science, but “Jamie's School Dinners” caused a ruckus in the UK that reached all the way to the Prime Minister. As part of Oliver's “Feed Me Better” campaign, he got the government to boost spending on school meals by 280 million pounds ($487 million). Many schools around the country were pressured by parents and health groups to up school lunch spending to 50 pence (87¢)/child and “cut out the crap.”

Much like American kids, British kids like their soda pop (“fizzy drinks”), their bags of chips (“crisps”), and their candy (“sweets”) while sitting in front of the computer or TV. But those kids are growing up to be overweight teenagers and, later, obese adults. The results of that lifestyle is staggering. Right now, one in seven British 15-year-olds is obese, but by 2020, the British Medical Association (BMA) estimates one-third of girls and one-fifth of boys will be obese.

Where's the fat?

Americans are often thought of as Europeans' fat cousins, mostly by the Europeans themselves. In America, where Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Big Macs seem to be part of the staple diet, more than 30% of the population is obese and more than 60% are overweight. A chain of European obesity studies released earlier this year show many countries from Germany to Finland to Spain are at serious risk of becoming as obese, or more so, than the U.S.

“The time when obesity was thought to be a problem on the other side of the Atlantic has gone by,” Mars Di Bartolomeo, Luxembourg's Minister of Health, said recently, according to the Associated Press.

French and Germans may be as fat as Americans by 2020, but the Spanish might hit that mark in the next decade. In Spain, where obesity is the second highest cause of preventable deaths, people are opting for stomach bypass surgery rather than a change in diet or exercise. Of the roughly 20 million people in Spain, more than 10,000 have already undergone the surgery.

But just as the U.S. launched its “War on Drugs” and later its “War on Terror,” much of Europe is launching a “War on Obesity.” Many European governments, as well as the European Commission itself, are launching platforms and studies left and right to find ways to curb unhealthy eating. BMA, in a June report, attacked not only school lunches like Jamie Oliver did, but sought to eliminate junk food vending machines in schools and ban junk food advertising aimed at kids.

“It is madness that at a time when children are being told to eat less and do more exercise, they go into school and are sold fizzy drinks and doughnuts and do less than two hours (in-school) exercise a week,” said BMA's Vivienne Nathanson, MD.

“Children are being bombarded with mixed messages. On one hand they might learn about healthy eating at school; then they go home and spend hours watching TV and see celebrities eating hamburgers, crisps or drinking fizzy drinks. Children and parents are surrounded by the marketing of unhealthy cereals, snacks and processed meals — this has to stop,” she said.

France — one step ahead?

Obesity is finding its way even to France, a country that prides itself on pastries and rich sauces while staying model-thin with a cigarette in one hand. About 18% of French children are overweight and 4% are obese. French public health authorities say if nothing is done to stop the trend, French children could look much like American children by 2020.

The French government is a quickstep ahead of the Brits. Junk food vending machines in schools are banned beginning Sept. 1, and added new regulations added on advertising of sugary products, and a sort of “fat tax” on “alcopops,” those sugary punch-like bottled alcoholic drinks.

But it's not only up to the government to regulate and monitor obesity. People must take on the task themselves. I come from a typical American family where we're all “big-boned” with a few years here and there of being thin and trim. My younger sister, who lives in Paris and believes nothing is as good as the French counterpart, may have stumbled onto a bit of France we can all take with us.

With the book, “French Women Don't Get Fat — the secret of eating for pleasure,” by Mireille Guiliano, my sister says she has lost 10 lbs. this summer by drinking lots of water during the day and one or two glasses of wine at dinner, eating two plain yogurts a day and three good balanced meals. Along with eating well goes moderate daily activity like a 30-minute walk once or twice a day or taking stairs instead of the elevator. She says the book tells you to cook for yourself, never buy packaged meals, and eat fruits and vegetables in season.

“French women never punish or reward themselves with food, and never feel guilty about what they eat. They save their calories for when it counts, like a piece of really fine dark chocolate instead of a Snickers bar. If they have a dessert at lunch, they take an extra walk later in the day. Food should be a source of pleasure,” she says.

Meghan Sapp is an American agricultural journalist living in Brussels, Belgium.

Beef — country by country

In Europe, beef isn't as popular as chicken, but consumers have a good idea of its health benefits. Though the European Commission hasn't embarked on any EU-wide opinion polls on consumer perceptions of beef, individual countries have taken a look for themselves.

Danish nutrition researchers have conducted ongoing research into the effects of protein in the diet. According to Arne Astrup, head of human nutrition at the Royal Veterinary & Agricultural University in Copenhagen, a diet consisting of 25% protein rather than the average 12.5% causes weight loss to double in overweight people.

“Beef is fine as long as it's less than 10% fat, the more lean the better,” Astrup says. “We've found it's extremely helpful for weight loss.”

In Ireland, researchers claim Irish beef is necessary for a healthy diet. Research by the Grange Research Centre in Co. Meath shows Irish grass-fed beef has greater concentrations of the type of fatty acids doctors now accept will protect against cancer, obesity and heart disease.

“The chemical reactions brought about by the digestive system of the cattle fed on grass leads to the creation of a much greater amount of healthy fatty acids, known as CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids),” says research leader Aidan Moloney.

And though UK consumers still think of chicken as the healthiest protein, consumer attitudes on beef have improved the past two years despite significant publicity about child obesity at the same time, says UK Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) marketing director Richard Lowe.

MLC monitors consumer attitudes toward all kinds of meat on a monthly basis, talking with 3,600 people/year. Lowe says MLC surveys show 43% of consumers feel beef causes heart disease, a drop of 7% since 2003. Meanwhile, 40% of consumers feel beef causes high blood pressure, a drop of 4% since 2003.

“The media debate about obesity hasn't affected consumers' views of beef at all detrimentally, but it has helped to demonize certain products such as burgers, which tend to be characterized by journalists as ‘junk food,’” he says.