For kids in Greece, Spain and Italy, the Mediterranean diet is dead, according to the World Health Organisation. Children in Sweden are more likely to eat fish, olive oil and tomatoes than those in southern Europe.
In Cyprus, a phenomenal 43% of boys and girls aged nine are either overweight or obese. Greece, Spain and Italy also have rates of over 40%. The Mediterranean countries which gave their name to the famous diet that is supposed to be the healthiest in the world have children with Europe’s biggest weight problem.
Sweets, junk food and sugary drinks have displaced the traditional diet based on fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil, said Dr Joao Breda, head of the WHO European office for prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.
“The Mediterranean diet for the children in these countries is gone,” he said at the European Congress on Obesity in Vienna. “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.”
Children in southern Europe are eating few fruit and vegetables and drinking a lot of sugary colas and other sweet beverages, said Breda. They snack. They eat sweets. They consume too much salt, sugar and fat in their food. And they hardly move. “Physical inactivity is one of the issues that is more significant in the southern European countries,” he said. “A man in Crete in the 60s would need 3,500 calories because he was going up and down the mountain.”
The data comes from the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative of the WHO’s European region, which has been running since 2008 and now involves more than 40 countries that submit weight and height data for their children. The latest figures come from data collected between 2015 and 2017. “It is very high quality data,” said Breda.
The countries with the lowest levels of child obesity are Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – but those are all undergoing a “nutrition transition”, moving towards a western diet which may change the picture. Children in Tajikistan already consume large quantities of sugary soft drinks.
France, Norway, Ireland, Latvia and Denmark also have low rates, ranging from 5% to 9%. Ireland’s rate is 20%. The UK does not contribute data to the study, but about one in three children are overweight or obese when they leave primary school at the age of 11.
But the good news is that the Mediterranean countries are addressing the problem and having some success is bringing their childhood obesity rates down. At least three-quarters of Italy’s children are now eating fruit every day or most days, for instance. “There is progress,” said Breda. “They recognise there is a problem and they are trying to do something.”
Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative 2015-2017 lists the eating habits of the children but does not take into consideration one important factor: the tight austerity and the economic crisis that hit the societies in European South in the last 8 years. Austerity and obesity go hand in hand.
I’ve seen families during the crisis years to be dependent of charity food package week in, week out. For practical reasons the only vegetable these packages contain are canned tomatoes. Zero fresh vegetable zero fresh fruits.
- And who can buy a liter of olive oil at 7-8 euros, when the monthly income is less than 600 euro for a family of four?
On the other hand one should note that obesity in Greek children started in the last couple decades with fast food restaurants popping up like mushrooms in every corner.