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“The Mediterranean diet is over”:

The region's children are the fattest in Europe

The diets that Greece, Spain, and Italy are famous for - rich in fruit, vegetables, fish, and olive oil - are said to be the healthiest in the world, but obesity is on the rise

The Mediterranean diet is considered the healthiest in the world.
The Mediterranean diet is considered the healthiest in the world.

For children in Greece, Spain and Italy, the Mediterranean diet is dead, according to the World Health Organization, which says children in Sweden are more likely to eat fish, olive oil and tomatoes than children in southern Europe.

In Cyprus, a phenomenal 43% of boys and girls aged nine are either overweight or obese. Greece, Spain and Italy also have rates above 40%. The Mediterranean countries that gave their name to the famous diet said to be the healthiest in the world have children with Europe's biggest weight problem.

Sweets, junk food and sugary drinks have supplanted traditional diets based on fruits and vegetables, fish and olive oil, said Dr. Joao Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.

"The Mediterranean diet for children in these countries is over," he said at the European Obesity Congress in Vienna. “There is no longer a Mediterranean diet. Those who are close to the Mediterranean diet are the Swedish children. The Mediterranean diet is over and we must regain it.”

Children in southern Europe eat little fruit and vegetables and drink lots of sugary cola and other sweet drinks, Breda said. They snack. They eat sweets. They consume too much salt, sugar and fat in their diet. And they hardly move. "Physical inactivity is one of the issues that is of greater concern in southern European countries," he said. "A man in Crete in the '60s needed 3,500 calories just walking up and down the mountain."

The data comes from the WHO European Region's Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative, which has been running since 2008 and now includes more than 40 countries reporting data on their children's weight and height. The latest figures come from data collected between 2015 and 2017. "It's very high quality data," said Breda.

The countries with the lowest rates of childhood obesity are Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – but these countries are all undergoing a “diet transition” and moving towards a Western diet that could change the picture. Children in Tajikistan are already consuming large amounts of sugary soft drinks.

France, Norway, Ireland, Latvia and Denmark also have low rates, ranging from 5% to 9%. The UK does not contribute data to the study, but around one in three children will be overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school at the age of 11.

But the good news is that Mediterranean countries are tackling the problem and are having some success in reducing their childhood obesity rates. For example, at least three quarters of children in Italy now eat fruit every day or most days. "There is progress," said Breda. "They realize there is a problem and they try to do something."

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