Mediterraneans Ditch Their Famously Healthy Diet

Human Nature at the Root of Eating Habits

Today, the cheapness of processed foods in the United States and abroad makes healthy diets, rich in the staples of the Mediterranean cuisine, a privilege of the affluent. The great irony, however, is that the Mediterranean diet evolved as the diet of the poor, agrarian classes in that region.

"This diet was developed out of economic necessity," Wolper said. Fruits and vegetables were grown in backyards, olive oil was made in the home, and meat was expensive so eaten rarely.

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But as soon as fatty, sugary, salty foods become more affordable -- as made possible by modern processing of food -- people, no matter their nationality, became more likely to eat it because of human nature, Katz said.

"Throughout most of human history, calories, sugar, salt, and fat were scarce, and needed for survival … and physical activity was unavoidable. All homo sapiens -- American, Mediterranean, and otherwise -- are hard-wired to like the foods that provide these. So, once a food supply becomes available that delivers these in abundance, in abundance they are consumed," he said.

Even as Americans were trying to export the Mediterranean peasant diet back to the states for its health benefits, those living in that region were growing out of that farming lifestyle and the diet it created into a more affluent, industrialized society keen on convenient, processed foods.

Now, nations such Greece are growing into the expanded pant sizes that come with such a dietary shift, with three-quarters of the Greek population tipping the scales at overweight or obese. Similar obesity trends continue in Italy and other Mediterranean nations, especially among adolescents.

"We are all victims of our own success," Katz said. "We have devised a modern world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get, and calories are unavoidable. Houston, we have a problem."

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