Mediterranean Diet on Its Way Out at Home?

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.

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