The nations once renowned for their way of eating now have the highest childhood obesity rates in Europe.
The Mediterranean diet has long been upheld as a model for the rest of the world -- an ideal way of eating that ensures lasting physical and mental wellbeing. People who follow the diet's traditional pattern, which prioritizes vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, olive oil, and moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and wine, are among the world's longest-living. But, unfortunately, it looks like their grandchildren will not enjoy such longevity.
New data from the World Health Organization paints an alarming picture of the true state of the Mediterranean diet. Gone are the days when schoolchildren in Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Spain downed their moussaka, eggplant parmesan, or paella with gusto. The WHO says that children belonging to these nations are now the fattest in Europe.
Cyprus has the highest rate of overweight and obesity, scoring 43 percent among 9-year-old children. Greece, Spain, and Italy all have rates over 40 percent. The countries with the lowest rates are Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, but these are going through what Quartz describes as "nutritional transition," their diets evolving as populations grow wealthier and adopt more Western eating habits; as a result, these numbers are likely to increase in coming years.
Dr. João Breda, head of the WHO's European office for prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases, described the situation in dismal terms at a recent congress in Vienna:
“The Mediterranean diet for the children in these countries is gone. There is no Mediterranean diet any more. Those who are close to the Mediterranean diet are the Swedish kids. The Mediterranean diet is gone and we need to recover it.”
The problem, he says, is the creep of sugary, overly-processed foods into children's diets. They snack too much and they don't move enough. Vegetables and grains have been replaced by French fries, pizza, hamburgers, meat pies, and sausages, says Quartz.
“Physical inactivity is one of the issues that is more significant in the southern European countries,” Breda said. “A man in Crete in the 60s would need 3,500 calories because he was going up and down the mountain.”
The solution is to go back to the traditional way of eating, but that's easier said than done. The shift away from the Mediterranean diet has likely been driven by convenience, busier schedules, longer workdays, fewer stay-at-home parents to prepare meals, and increased income enabling access to processed and restaurant-sourced foods. A return to traditional eating patterns would require significant lifestyle changes, such as an emphasis on home cooking and parental commitments to teaching kids how to eat a broad range of foods, as well as finding opportunities for them to exercise daily.
It won't be easy, but the benefits are tremendous -- enormous savings to national health care systems and, arguably most important, boosting the physical and mental wellbeing of young citizens.