Chub Med?

by Josh Sosland
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ROME — Days after the Mediterranean diet received yet another validating nod in a highly respected medical journal, a United Nations agency said the diet increasingly has been shunned by the people of the Mediterranean.

Joseph Schmidhuber, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said the celebrated diet that revolves around grains, olive oil, fruits and vegetables has "decayed into a moribund state" over the past 45 years.

The F.A.O. pronouncement comes on the heels of an article published in the July 17 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine describing how the Mediterranean diet held its own against the Atkins diet and bested a low-fat diet in a two-year study sponsored by the Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Foundation.

Once held as a model for the rest of the world, the food habits of people in southern Europe, North Africa and the Near East have deteriorated, Mr. Schmidhuber said. He presented a paper on the subject at a workshop organized by the California Mediterranean Consortium of seven academic institutions in the United States and Europe, focusing on Mediterranean products in the global market.

With higher incomes, people of the Mediterranean have added calories from meats and fats to diets traditionally light on animal proteins. The current diet of the Mediterranean is "too fat, too salty and too sweet," Mr. Schmidhuber said.

Supporting his conclusions with data, Mr. Schmidhuber said caloric intake in Europe increased to 3,340 calories per day from 2,960 calories over the 40 years ended in 2002. In Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta, countries that started out poorer than the northerners, calorie intake rose 30%.

"Higher calorie intake and lower calorie expenditure have made Greece today the E.U. member country with the highest average body mass index and the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity," Mr. Schmidhuber said. "Today, three quarters of the Greek population are overweight or obese."

Similarly, more than 50% of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese populations are overweight, and Mr. Schmidhuber described a "vast increase" in caloric intake and glycemic load of the diets in the Near East and North Africa.

Mr. Schmidhuber attributed the deterioration of the region’s diets not only to higher income but to the proliferation of supermarkets; changes in food distribution systems; constraints on cooking time for working women; and increased eating away from homes, often in quick-service restaurants.

"At the same time calorie needs have declined, people exercise less and have shifted to a more sedentary lifestyle," Mr. Schmidhuber said. On a positive note, he said the people in the region actually have increased their intake of fruits and vegetables as well as olive oil.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 19, 2008, starting on Page 16. Click here to search that archive.

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