July 14, 2011 -- The Mediterranean diet -- rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy oils -- has been praised for its ability to stave off obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even arthritis and Alzheimer's disease.
All the benefits come to naught, however, if no one is willing to follow it. While the obesity epidemic continues to grow in the United States, even those native to the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet have forsaken their healthful culinary roots for a more modern, processed, obesity-inducing diet.
As early as 2008, while the Mediterranean diet was experiencing a surge of popularity stateside, a United Nations report by Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist at the U.N's Food and Agriculture Organization, wrote that the diet had "decayed into a moribund state" back in the 16 Mediterranean countries that made it famous.
Instead, those living around the Mediterranean wanted food that was "too fat, too salty and too sweet," Schmidhuber said. Today, that trend continues, with researchers in the region reporting that more and more, young people are shunning traditional diets for processed food and a sedentary lifestyle.
"How tragic, then, that rather than importing the Med diet to the U.S., we are exporting to the Med region the very dietary and lifestyle practices that have given us rampant obesity and diabetes, and unsustainable disease care costs," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center.
But is the growing love of fast food and soda simply the exportation of the American diet, or is it the product of modern living and affluence? That even Mediterranean young people have opted for these kinds of cheap, fast, convenience food options might shed light on why the Western world, in general, is rapidly expanding its waistline.
Although undoubtedly one of the healthiest diets, the Mediterranean diet has received some flack in the United States for being an expensive one. The fresh produce, olive oil and fish that make up the staples of the diet are all many times more expensive than the processed meats, fats and carbohydrates that are the staples of junk food diets.
"Studies have shown that if you shop around the edges of the supermarket, where all the fresh produce and dairy is, you pay about 10 times more for every 100 calories of food you get when compared to shopping in the middle of the store, where the chips, snacks and processed foods are," said Dr. Carla Wolper, senior clinical nutritionist at New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City.
"The amount of junk food consumed in the U.S. has mostly to do with how cheap it is, especially in the recession."
Other research has tracked how those on welfare eat and found that how much junk and fast food people consume is tied to how recently they received their welfare check, Wolper said.
"When people get their checks, they tend to spend it quickly, and toward the end while they're waiting for the next check, that's when they eat the most junk food," she said.
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.
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."