Mediterraneans Abandon Their Famous Diet

July 13, 2011

Jeremy Cherfas

Marco Secchi
A vegetable stall at at market in Venice. Even in Italy, healthy peasant fare like fresh vegetables and fruits isn't cheap, leading many there to abandon the famously healthy Mediterranean Diet.

It's not news that Americans are getting fatter and fatter and the same is happening in many countries around the world. What may come as a bit of a surprise is that it's even happening in Mediterranean countries, especially among young people.

Pioppi, a little, seaside Italian town, south of Naples, is home of the Mediterranean Diet. In fact, there's a museum here dedicated to Ancel Keys, a Minnesota physiologist who traveled to Europe during the 1940s and 1950s to study the diet of people living near the Mediterranean Sea.

Keys, who liked to eat Mediterranean style meals, lived to be 101 years old. The problem is, in Italy generally, even here in Pioppi, the diet is being ignored.

"The Mediterranean diet is absolutely something that we are trying to pursue every day," said Dr. Angelo Pietrobelli, associate professor of pediatrics and nutrition at the University of Verona. "Unfortunately, in particular among adolescents, they try to avoid Mediterranean diet because they try to 'imitate' the U.S. diet."

Some people, of course, don't think hamburgers and sodas are a U.S. diet — they call it the "industrial global diet." Either way, the results are the same.

When Keys first came to Italy with the U.S. Army during World War II — his name is the K in the Army's emergency K-rations — he was struck by the low rate of heart disease he saw among poor people in Italy, compared to well-fed northern Europe and America. The traditional Mediterranean Diet is more than just tasty, it's actually good for you.

But the Italians who gave Keys his insights into the Mediterranean diet have vanished. Italy now tips the scales as the fat men of Europe; maybe 36 percent of 12-to-16-year-olds are overweight or obese, according to Pietrobelli.

Nor is the problem confined to Italy. Spain and Greece are also abandoning the traditional Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and seeing much heavier young people.

Of course, it isn't just fast food and sodas.

"I can tell you that approximately 20 percent of subjects between 6 to 12 years of age are staying in front of the TV approximately four hours per day," said Pietrobelli.

For the first time in history, today's children are predicted to live shorter lives than their parents. And the Italian Ministry of Health is worried. Health officials say that the obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, and the TV campaigns "make it easier to make healthy choices."

The rise in Italian obesity rates is remarkable: After all, the overweight kids in, say, Pioppi are the great-grandchildren of the original Mediterranean diet subjects. That's a massive change in only three generations.

While nutritionists like Pietrobelli continue to work on fixing the problem, others are trying to understand the changes.

Zachary Nowak, a food historian who teaches at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, says that the original Mediterranean diet was a diet of poverty, not of choice. Keys' original study, he points out, included research on Crete. And the researchers there asked a very interesting question: "How would you change your diet?"

"These aren't people in Crete in 1948 saying, 'Oh, yeah, I love this diet. It keeps me very healthy. It's fantastic,'" said Nowak. "They would love to add more meat if they had more money. And indeed, as soon as people have more money, they add more meat to their diet."

In Greece as a whole, people are now eating roughly four times more meat than they were in the 1950s. Same in Italy. Same wherever incomes go up.

Much of the growth of industrial food has been dedicated to satisfying a hunger for meat, fat and sugar. Even McDonalds sounds better in Italian.

"There's no match for the huge marketing efforts and promotion of junk food, and we have to protect our children," said Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and one of the researchers who helped to popularize the Mediterranean Diet in the U.S. back in the early 1990s.

"Children are the object of a huge amount of research on how to seduce them to eat more of foods that are horrible for them and making them fat and giving them obesity, and we know they're going to die prematurely," he said.

But there's another big problem, too, and it's the same whether you are in the U.S. or in Italy. As Pietrobelli points out, the global industrial diet of meat, fat and sugar is cheap — whereas healthy peasant food is not.

"Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and olive oil are very expensive, he said. "And also, fish is really quite expensive, too."

These days, it seems, you have to be wealthier to eat like a poor Mediterranean peasant.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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