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Food for thought: is decline of Mediterranean diet at root of obesity rise?

Research by World Health Organisation assessed the eating habits of hundreds of thousands of children in Southern Europe

A new report has said the failing uptake of the Mediterranean diet could be a factor in rising obesity rates.    
A new report has said the failing uptake of the Mediterranean diet could be a factor in rising obesity rates.    

The lack of appetite for the traditionally healthier Mediterranean diet could be a recipe for a rise in childhood obesity across Southern Europe, a global survey has found.

Research led by the World Health Organisation said that more than 4 per cent of those used in the analysis from Greece, Malta, Italy, Spain and San Marino were found to be severely obese, with boys particularly susceptible.

The Mediterranean diet typically boasts an abundance of unsaturated fats such as olive oil, fish and vegetables, and small amounts of meat and dairy. It has long been associated with a healthy lifestyle.

More than 636,000 children aged six to nine were assessed from 21 countries over three separate periods in the past 10 years. France and the UK were not involved.

Experts also warned that there was a lack of resources available to deal with the numbers of severely overweight youngsters.

“In many counties the health systems are not prepared to deal with this challenge. They have difficulties dealing with severe obese adults, so you can imagine [the problems] when it comes to children,” Dr Joao Breda, head of the WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, told the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, Scotland.

Dr Breda was presenting a report that revealed large gaps in the numbers of heavily obese children across Europe

The report stated “the loss of the Mediterranean diet in Southern European countries could be linked to this severe obesity problem”.

Other possible reasons cited included the lower height-for-age in the region.

Countries described as “experiencing a nutrition transition” such as Albania and Moldova had relatively low prevalence obesity rates in young children. There are fears that without effective and efficient policy measures, however, these numbers could reach the levels recorded elsewhere.

Even at such a young age, heavily overweight children were already showing different than normal markers of cardiovascular health, insulin resistance and mobility problems, said Dr Breda.

He called for an increase in prevention and treatment strategies, but added that new health surveillance systems would help. It was also found that children whose mothers had only had primary or secondary education were more likely to suffer from severe obesity.

Separately, Dr Breda slammed the misconception-ridden baby food industry. He said four out of 10 health problems with babies came from free sugars despite untrue claims they were “highly regulated”.

While conceding salt is less of a worry he said “there really is too much sugar in these products and we really need to take that into account”.

Updated: May 1, 2019 09:52 AM

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