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 man 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,” Pietrobelli said.
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 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.