Mediterranean Diet on Its Way Out at Home?

Since the early 1990s, doctors have been urging us to switch to the Mediterranean diet, claiming it will bring us a longer and healthier life.

Respected researchers have proved how this diet can stave off arthritis, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Zillions of articles and books have underlined the benefits of eating a diet low in fat, high in fiber, and made up mostly of fruit and vegetables, doused with hearty spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil.

Amazingly, however, while some people in the world have been convinced by the evidence, people living in the Mediterranean area, the 16 countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, are increasingly shunning their traditional diet according to a report released today by the United Nations.

What is eaten now by the people who live around the Mediterranean is "too fat, too salty and too sweet," says Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist of FAO, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization headquartered in Rome. In the very area where it was born, the diet has "decayed into a moribund state," according to Schmidhuber.

He presented his findings in a paper at a recent workshop on Mediterranean products in the global market, organized by the California Mediterranean Consortium of seven U.S. and EU academic institutions.

Growing affluence in the southern European, North African and Near East regions has greatly deteriorated people's eating habits. More money has meant people have increased meat and fats in their diet, which was traditionally light on animal proteins.

Daily intake of calories in the 15 European nations increased about 20 percent over 40 years to 2002 -- from 2960 kcal to 3340 kcal -- but the southern countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta which started out poorer upped their calorie count by 30 percent in this same period.

"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."

To add to the dire news, more than half of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese populations are overweight too and the overall calories and glycemic load of diets in the Near East-North Africa region has greatly increased as well.

The report states that people in Spain, Greece and Italy have become the EU's biggest fat eaters. Spain, where fat was only 25 percent of the diet 40 years ago, now accounts for 40 percent.

The report's claims were met with a mixed response by the people spoke to today on the streets of Rome.

Nando Rossetti, a portly 58-year-old bar owner, said: "We always eat the traditional way at home. We work all day in the bar but in the evenings we come home and the family gathers around the dinner table for a proper meal. ...all fresh food. Beware the family member who doesn't show up for dinner!"

He looks sad when asked if he thinks the Mediterranean diet is on its way out. "I think it is possible -- everything is changing so fast -- everyone is eating on the run. Nobody can be bothered anymore. People just don't have time or want to dedicate the time. Everything is pre-cooked, frozen and just zapped in the microwave. Both husband and wife work, arrive home late tired and just don't feel like cooking...."

He believes it is a modern trend, influenced heavily by the television.

Does he think people are getting fatter eating this way? "I don't know," he shakes his head and smiles, "they always say they are on a diet but they become obese anyway because they eat badly now."

Schmidhuber says the change in eating habits is partly due to increased incomes and partly 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.

Paolo Santalucia, a slim and athletic looking 33-year-old from southern Italy, denied the trend saying, "I always only eat the Mediterranean diet....lots of pasta, tomatoes, bread, pizza, vegetables and fruit."

"It's not dead at all. I grew up with it and I feel it is a part of me," he says proudly. "In fact when I go abroad to Northern European countries where they eat a lot of meat and sauces, I don't feel well ...I just don't digest properly."

But for many obesity is a growing problem. Throughout the Mediterranean people have shifted to a much more sedentary lifestyle and their calorie needs have declined.

"My family comes from Calabria so I love all those typical recipes with pepperoni, zucchini and melanzane," says Maria Valentini, a University professor in Rome and mother of two children, aged 9 and 12. Both are slightly overweight for their age, she thinks, same as about half of the kids in their classes at school, but she doesn't think any would be considered obese.

"We adults eat a Mediterranean diet in our house but it'd a losing battle trying to get our kids to eat it! They are bombarded with fast-food ads and are enticed by the prizes they offer. They just won't eat fruit and vegetable very much, it's mostly pasta, chips and meat."

And as for keeping them moving, Maria adds, "natural child activities like walking, running and playing outdoors have almost vanished in Italy."

"I remember running about freely in the parks and courtyards when I was small but I don't let my kids out of my sight now. It just doesn't feel so safe, maybe it's not true but it's what we read in the papers now. So the only way to get them doing sports is to take them to special classes or sports clubs which means money and time; one of us -- either I or my husband -- has to be present if only to drive them there and back."

"Maybe when they become adults they may change, but for now they do not see the appeal of being slim and healthy," she says.

Only last March, Italy's Agriculture Minister Paolo De Castro announced that Italy was spearheading a campaign, together with Spain, Greece and Morocco, to win UNESCO recognition for the Mediterranean diet and add the diet to its World Heritage List.

"The Mediterranean diet is a heritage that should be protected and shared," he said. "This campaign not only recognizes the characteristics of a healthy diet but will also help promote the history and culture of all Mediterranean countries."

As Mediterranean eating habits evolve, there may not be much of the traditional diet to preserve.