Waistlines expanding as Mediterraneans shun healthy diet, UN agency says

29 July 2008

Hailed by experts as keeping people slim, healthy and long-lived, the Mediterranean diet has followers all over the world – but is increasingly disregarded around the region, according to a senior economist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Josef Schmidhuber says that over the past 45 years the famed diet revolving around fresh fruit and vegetables has “decayed into a moribund state” in its home area.

With growing affluence the food habits of people in the southern European, North African and Near East regions, once held up as a model for the rest of the world, have sharply deteriorated, Mr. Schmidhuber reports. His findings are contained in a paper presented at a recent workshop organized by the California Mediterranean Consortium of seven United States and European Union (EU) academic institutions on Mediterranean products in the global market.

People on the shores of the Mediterranean have used higher incomes to add a large number of calories from meat and fats to a diet that was traditionally light on animal proteins. What they now eat is “too fat, too salty and too sweet,” Schmidhuber reports.

In the 40 years to 2002, daily intake in 15 European nations increased from 2,960 kilocalories to 3,340 kilocalories – about 20 per cent. But Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta, who started out poorer than the northerners, upped their calorie count by 30 per cent.

“Higher calorie intake and lower calorie expenditure have made Greece today the EU member country with the highest average Body Mass Index and the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity,” says Schmidhuber. “Today, three quarters of the Greek population are overweight or obese.”

More than half of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese populations are overweight too. At the same time there has also been a “vast increase” in the overall calories and glycaemic load of the diets in the Near East-North Africa region.

According to recommendations from the FAO and the UN World Health Organization (WHO), fat should account for no more than 30 per cent of total dietary energy supply. However, no population in the EU follows those guidelines, while Spain, Greece and Italy are all well over that limit and have become the EU’s biggest fat guzzlers.

The country which registered the most dramatic increase was Spain, where fat made up just 25 per cent of the diet 40 years ago but now accounts for 40 percent.

Mr. Schmidhuber attributes the change in eating habits not only to increased income but to factors such as the rise of supermarkets, changes in food distribution systems, working women having less time to cook, and families eating out more, often in fast food restaurants. At the same time, calorie needs have declined, people exercise less and they have shifted to a much more sedentary lifestyle.

On the positive side, however, he notes Mediterranean people now consume more fruit and vegetables and more olive oil.

But they generally fail to follow the diet which their ancestors adopted and which several Mediterranean countries want to be placed on the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.


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