Mediterraneans Abandon Their Famous Diet

Even in Italy, healthy peasant fare like the fresh vegetables and fruits at this market stall in Venice isn't cheap, leading many there to abandon the famously healthy Mediterranean diet.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: Almost 70 years ago, an American scientist visited the Italian seaside town of the Pioppi. He noticed that the people who lived there were exceptionally healthy and enjoyed long lives.

The scientist's name was Ancel Keys, and his observation was the beginning of decades of research showing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. So it may come as a surprise now that Italy has the biggest obesity problem in Europe today.

Reporter Jeremy Cherfas recently visited Pioppi to try and figure out why. His first stop is a museum devoted to Keys' research.

JEREMY CHERFAS: Here we are, in a rather sad looking room with posters on the wall. A lot of photographs. A lot of explanation of the Mediterranean diet. But the best I can do is read this quote from Ancel Keys himself: I like to eat a good pasta with beans, a lot of bread just prepared, many fresh vegetables with olive oil, a fish portion or meat one or two times in a week, good wine, and always fresh fruit. That's the basis of the Mediterranean diet.

Keys, who ate it, lived to be 101 years old. The problem is that in Italy generally and even here in Pioppi, home of the Mediterranean diet, it's being ignored.

CHERFAS: When Ancel Keys first came to Italy with the U.S. Army in World War II - and his name is the K in the Army's emergency K-rations - he was struck by the how little heart disease he saw among poor people in Italy, compared to well-fed northern Europe and America. That's because the traditional Mediterranean diet is more than just tasty - it's actually good for you.

Dr. ANGELO PIETROBELLI (University of Verona): The Mediterranean diet is absolutely something that we are trying to pursue every day.

CHERFAS: That's Angelo Pietrobelli, a physician and an associate professor of pediatrics and of nutrition at the University of Verona.

Dr. PIETROBELLI: Unfortunately, in particular among adolescents, they try to avoid Mediterranean diet because they try to quote-unquote "imitate" the U.S. diet.

CHERFAS: Some people, of course, don't think that hamburgers and sodas are a U.S. diet - they call it the industrial global diet. But either way, the results are the same. Italy now tips the scales as the fat man of Europe with maybe 36 percent of 12 to 16-year-olds overweight or obese.

Nor is the problem confined to Italy. Spain and Greece too are abandoning the traditional Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and seeing much heavier young people.

Of course it isn't just fast food and sodas.

Dr. PIETROBELLI: Approximately 20 percent of subjects between six to 12 years of age are staying in front of TV approximately four hours per day.

CHERFAS: For the first time in history, today's children are predicted to live shorter lives than their parents. And the Italian Ministry of Health is worried. They say that obesity is reaching epidemic proportions, and TV campaigns make it easier to make healthy choices.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

CHERFAS: Gain Health, a national campaign promoted by the Ministry of Health.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

CHERFAS: Something very remarkable is going on. After all, the overweight kids in, say, Pioppi are the great-grandchildren of the original Mediterranean diet subjects. That's a massive change in only three generations.

While nutritionists like Angelo Pietrobelli continue to work on fixing the problem, others are trying to understand the changes.

Zachary Nowak, a food historian who teaches at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, says the original Mediterranean diet was a diet of poverty, not of choice. Keys' original study, he points out, included research on Crete. And the researchers there asked a very interesting question.

Professor ZACHARY NOWAK (Umbra Institute, Perugia): How would you change your diet? The first thing that people say is I'd add more meat - immediately. These aren't people on Crete in 1948 saying, oh yes, I love this diet, it keeps me very healthy, it's fantastic. They would love to add more meat if they had more money. And indeed, as soon as people have more money, they add more meat to their diet.

In Greece as a whole, people are now eating roughly four times more meat than they were in the 1950s. Same in Italy. Same wherever incomes go up.

Much of the growth of the industrial global diet has been dedicated to satisfying a hunger for meat, fat and sugar.

(Soundbite of Italian McDonald's commercial)

CHERFAS: Even McDonald's sounds better in Italian. Whether you're in the U.S. or here in Italy, the problem is the same. As Angelo Pietrobelli points out, the global industrial diet of meat and sugar is cheap - whereas healthy peasant food is not.

Dr. PIETROBELLI: Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and olive oil are very expensive. And also, fish is really quite expensive too.

CHERFAS: These days, it seems, you have to be wealthier to eat like a poor Mediterranean peasant.

For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Cherfas in Rome.