Southern Italians, Greeks, and other residents of the Mediterranean seem to have the perfect diet: fish, fresh vegetables, and olive oil, washed down with red wine. It’s delicious but also healthy, a claim that was proven in the 1940′s by Dr. Ancel Keys, a Minnesota physiologist who was the first proponent of the Mediterranean diet’s ability to protect against heart disease, despite the fact that the diet derived more than 35% of its calories from fat.
Now, according to a report from NPR, Mediterraneans (in particular, Italians) are abandoning the Mediterranean diet in favor of the “global industrial diet” – in other words, they’re eating more junk food. The result is a soaring increase in Italy’s obesity rates.
There are a variety of explanations for why Italians, in particular, are changing their diet so drastically. Some, like Dr. Angelo Pietrobelli, associate professor of pediatrics and nutrition at the University of Verona, contend that youth in particular are emulating American diets, to their detriment. But food historian Zachary Nowak has a different take. He explains that the people whom Keys studied in the 1940′s were eating a “Mediterranean diet” because they were poor, not because it was traditional or healthy.
“These aren’t people in Crete in 1948 saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I love this diet. It keeps me very healthy. It’s fantastic,’ ” Nowak told NPR. “They would love to add more meat if they had more money. And indeed, as soon as people have more money, they add more meat to their diet.”
In Greece and Italy, people are eating four times as much meat as they did fifty years ago, a result of rising incomes. So prosperity could also be fueling the shift toward unhealthy eating. Pietrobelli also pointed out that lifestyles were changing, and that children in particular were becoming more sedentary. This, he said, had much to do with the obesity epidemic among Italy’s youth.
Ironically, one often-lodged critique against the Mediterranean diet is how expensive it is for people who live in non-Mediterranean countries. So although decades ago, impoverished citizens of Italy and Greece ate fish, vegetables and olive oil because they couldn’t afford meat, the inexpensive options are now sugary, salty processed foods, and fast-food hamburgers.
It’s strange to think that now, only the most affluent citizens can aspire to eat like a Mediterranean peasant. But it seems that, for the most part, Mediterranean citizens’ diets, past and present, are not organized around choice, but necessity.
Photo from Signe Karin via flickr.