More European kids are eating like Americans. And they appear to be less healthy, as a result.
European children whose families have ditched the Mediterranean diet are more likely to be obese. Roughly one in five boys in countries like Cyprus, Greece, Malta, San Marino, Italy and Spain are now obese, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization’s Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative.
Comparatively, less than 10% of children in Northern European countries such as Norway and Ireland were obese.
The Mediterranean diet is falling out of favor
The Mediterranean diet no longer appears to be the prevailing approach to eating for most of Southern European, according to researchers. “This is evidence of the globalization of the American diet,” said Kristie Lancaster, associate professor of nutrition at New York University. “You can find McDonald’s
anywhere, and those things are more convenient.”
Countries that have attempted to revive the Mediterranean diet — including Italy and Spain — have managed to reduce the obesity rates in those countries, WHO said.
The diet doesn’t just focus on what you eat. Indeed, physical activity is an important component of the Mediterranean lifestyle this diet espouses. And the reduced amounts of exercises children in Southern Europe engage in has placed as crucial a role in the rise in obesity as their increased sugar-intake. For instance, only 19% of Maltese children walk or ride a bike to school versus 36% of Danish kids.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet prioritizes eating plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. It also emphasizes whole grains over more processed carbohydrates and unsaturated fats such as olive oil over saturated fats like butter.
Additionally, seafood is more commonly eaten — a couple days a week according to the Mayo Clinic — whereas red meat is only consumed a couple times a month. And herbs and spices are used to flavor food more than salt.
Unlike more restrictive diets, such as the Paleo diet or Atkins diet, the Mediterranean diet is rather broad and flexible. “There is no one Mediterranean diet,” Lancaster said. “Different countries and different regions have different types of foods, but they still fall into a few categories.”
How does the diet stack up?
The Mediterranean diet has received the stamp of approval from many experts. It was ranked as the best overall diet by U.S. News and World Report based on analyses from a panel of nutritional experts for the first time ever this year. It shared the honors with the DASH Diet, a healthy eating approach promoted by the National Institutes of Health.
The DASH diet is rich in fruit and vegetables. It also allows you to eat low-fat dairy products, fish and poultry, but aims to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened food and red meat.
Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. And because it’s less restrictive than other diets and features a lot of variety in terms of the kinds of food allowed, Lancaster said it may be easier for many people to follow.
However, researchers caution against comparing diets since there is a lack of rigorous, long-term studies that compared multiple popular diets. Instead, they argue that any diet that emphasizes minimally-processed foods, primarily from plants, will see similar health benefits.
And while the Mediterranean diet might be one of the healthiest, it’s not necessarily the cheapest. A recent study found that a vegetarian diet could save consumers hundreds of dollars a year — and be good for their health.