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.

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