A senior official at the World Health Organization pronounced the Mediterranean diet dead last week -- a casualty of changing lifestyles in countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy.
New data from the organization shows that children in southern Europe have obesity rates higher than 40 percent. In a presentation Thursday to health officials at the European Congress on Obesity, João Breda, the program manager for nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, blamed the incursion of sodas and snacks into the region’s traditionally low-sugar, produce-heavy diet.
“The Mediterranean diet for the children in these countries is gone,” Breda told the assembled officials. “There is no Mediterranean diet anymore. ... The Mediterranean diet is gone, and we need to recover it.”
Breda’s observations are from the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, a 10-year-old research project that monitors the height, weight and eating habits of tens of thousands of children in more than 30 European countries. The largest study of its kind, COSI captures long-term changes in children’s diets and childhood obesity.
In southern Europe, those dietary changes have generally been for the worse. While famous for their “Mediterranean diet” -- lauded for its healthfulness, and heavy in leafy greens, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and pulses and some lean proteins -- many Greeks, Spaniards and Italians have developed a taste for processed food, sodas and sweets.
This latest COSI analysis found that fewer than 1 in 3 Spanish children eat fruit every day, and fewer than 1 in 10 have a daily vegetable. In Italy, nearly three-quarters of kids eat fruit daily, but just over half eat vegetables.
That mirrors surveys of adults in Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, which have found that younger generations tend to eat more meat and dairy and less fresh produce than older people. In one Italian study, two-thirds of respondents ages 15 to 24 said they didn’t eat a Mediterranean-like diet -- compared with 47 percent of adults ages 55 to 64.
“The Mediterranean diet is based on fresh, seasonal and local food,” Breda told The Washington Post by email. “[Children today] eat much less fruit and vegetables, pulses and fiber-rich complex carbohydrates than their parents and grandparents.”
In some ways, this is not surprising. Most experts agree the traditional Mediterranean diet is not coming back. That diet was originally documented in the post-World War II era, when most families could not afford soda, red meat or dairy products.
With higher incomes, more food options and more constraints on their time, Europeans need new ways to eat healthfully, Breda said. He has advocated rules that would improve the healthfulness of packaged and processed foods or encourage consumers to buy less of them, such as mandatory salt reductions, prominent nutrition labels and soda or sugar taxes.
Several southern European countries have adopted these approaches: Portugal introduced a soda tax last year. Mediterranean countries have also invested heavily in improving nutrition literacy and school meals, Breda said, and in establishing better health interventions for overweight children.
The focus on nutrition appears to be working. While child obesity rates in southern Europe remain far higher than in other parts of the continent and the world, the latest COSI report logged a decline in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy.
“I strongly believe the principles of the Mediterranean diet are recoverable into our daily lives,” Breda said. “This dietary pattern is [not only] healthy but also sustainable, local and economically viable. It has a future if we do the right things to protect it."