The Mediterranean diet has been touted as an example of healthy eating for years. However, new data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that southern European countries have the highest rates of childhood obesity in Europe.
The data, gathered by WHO Europe’s Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) from 2015 to 2017, reveals that children in Sweden are more likely to consume a traditionally Mediterranean diet than those in the Mediterranean region.
Around one in five boys in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, San Marino and Spain are obese, according to the WHO.
“The Mediterranean diet for the children in these countries is gone,” Dr Joao Breda, head of the WHO European office for prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases, said at the European Congress on Obesity in Vienna. “There is no Mediterranean diet any more. Those who are close to the Mediterranean diet are the Swedish kids.”
Dr Breda explained that typical Mediterranean staples, including fish, vegetables and olive oil, have been replaced by sugary drinks, sweets and junk food, and said there is a need to reinstate the region’s traditional diet.
The issue is compounded by a lack of exercise. “Physical inactivity is one of the issues that is more significant in the southern European countries,” said Dr Breda. “A man in Crete in the 60s would need 3,500 calories because he was going up and down the mountain.”
The data shows that Denmark, France, Ireland, Latvia and Norway have some of the lowest childhood obesity rates in the region, ranging from 5% to 9% in boys and girls.
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan had the lowest rates of all, but are in the process of a “nutrition transition,” reports The Guardian. More people in these countries are moving towards a western diet, which could alter childhood obesity levels. Children in Tajikistan, for example, have begun consuming many sugary soft drinks, The Guardian notes.
Dr Breda said that in spite of high obesity rates in southern Europe, the countries were taking action to improve health.
“In countries like Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece, although rates are high, there has been an important decrease.” This is “attributable to a very significant effort that these countries have made in recent years into management and prevention of childhood obesity,” explained Dr Breda.
Since the WHO launched COSI in 2007, the initiative has collected data from about 300,000 children aged six to nine years across the WHO European Region. 38 countries in the region took part in the 2015-2017 data collection period, but several large countries including the UK and Germany did not participate.
In addition to height and weight measurements, countries submitted data concerning children’s eating habits and other nutritional information.
Dr Breda said COSI is the largest surveillance system of its kind in the world and provides governments with valuable information that helps them improve children’s health and nutrition.
“The data is really useful for policy-makers,” said Dr Breda. “To make the right decisions, policy-makers need to know both their country’s own data around child obesity, and if policies have made a difference. A monitoring tool like COSI will sound the alarm bell if we are not achieving our universal aim of decreasing child obesity rates across Europe.”