Mediterranean Diet is ‘gone,’ says World Health Organization – but is it?

The Mediterranean Diet is based on fruits, vegetables, lean meats and nuts and seeds. Getty Images

The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest diets around today as it has been shown to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and obesity, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University.

But one senior official at the World Health Organization (WHO) is declaring the diet dead thanks to the changing lifestyles in countries like Greece, Spain and Italy, the Washington Post details.

READ MORE: The Mediterranean diet may prevent dementia – here’s how to include it in your life

According to a new report by WHO, childhood obesity rates in southern European countries are skyrocketing above 40 per cent. And it’s all thanks to increased consumption of sugar in things like sodas and snacks, he says.

“The Mediterranean diet for the children in these countries is gone,” João Breda, program manager for nutrition, physical activity and obesity at WHO’s regional office for Europe, said at the European Congress on Obesity in Vienna, The Guardian reports. “There is no Mediterranean diet anymore. Those who are close to the Mediterranean diet are the Swedish kids. The Mediterranean diet is gone and we need to recover it.”

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The traditional Mediterranean diet is based on fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil – fresh, seasonal and local food, Breda says. But when it comes to snack time today, kids are choosing sweeter or saltier eats, and it’s clearly having an impact on their weight and physical well-being.

“Physical inactivity is one of the issues that is more significant in the south European countries,” Breda said. “A man in Crete in the 60s would need 3,500 calories because he was going up and down the mountain.”

The report based its data on the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative of WHO’s European region, which includes data from over 40 countries.

Italy was found to have the highest rate of childhood obesity among kids ages five to nine with 42 per cent of children being overweight, the report finds. This is followed by Greece with 41 per cent and Malta at about 40 per cent.

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Even though the results of the report are disappointing, they’re not entirely surprising given today’s dietary trends, registered dietitian Andy De Santis says.

And while a massive public health effort needs to be put forth in changing the trajectory of the way the current generation of kids eat, De Santis doesn’t believe the Mediterranean diet is all that dead — at least not yet. But if current food trends continue then it just may very well be gone one day.

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“[Sugary] foods are generally cheap and easily accessible, which is part of the problem,” De Santis says. “The bigger part of the problem, however, is that they are high in calories, easy to consume in large quantities, low in nutrients and do not offer any real feeling of fullness or satisfaction because they lack protein and fibre.”

Not to mention, De Santis adds, these foods tend to also be very high in fat content.

For registered dietitian Andrea D’Ambrosio of Dietetic Directions, diets are only part of the overall problem when it comes to childhood obesity.

“I believe that increasing obesity trends also have to do with priorities placed on eating – or the world/life demands placed on individuals,” she says. “Are families cooking meals at home or buying out? Are families eating together? These are traditions that were common especially in Europe and hectic schedules seem to erode at prioritizing these practices – which leads to improved dietary intakes.”

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So what about in Canada? Several polls, including ones conducted by the Dietitians of Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, found that Canadians do not cook balanced meals for themselves or their family on a regular basis and that their shopping and eating habits are more sporadic.

But as to whether the diet is actually gone, D’Ambrosio also thinks it’s not the case.

“The statement that the Mediterranean diet is gone seems overly sensational to me,” she says. “While trends may have the diet transitioning away from emphasizing lots of fresh fruits and veggies, legumes and fish and healthy fats – this dot not mean that everyone has moved away from this diet.”

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