Southern europeans have long been able to boast at least one advantage over their richer northern neighbors: better general health and longer life, thanks to the Mediterranean diet. An irony of this now-fashionable way of eating is that it is largely a by-product of poverty itself. Southern agricultural societies consumed olive oil, vegetables, pulses, fruit, grains, fish and very little fatty meat, because that is what their climate, soil and purse provided. And they washed it all down with sharp red wines, moderate amounts of which are known to be salutary.
But while the Mediterranean diet's praises are being sung from New York to Sydney, it is steadily going out the window for many southern Europeans. The proof is in their pudding bellies. According to the most recent study by Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical branch, more than one man in four and one woman in five in the E.U. is either overweight or severely overweight. Even more alarming is the news that southern Europeans now head the lumpy league, particularly men. The survey gives Greece the dubious record, with 35.4% of its male population overweight, followed by Spanish males, at 32%. They have overtaken tubby British and German males (29.5% and 28.6%), and Greeks are more than double the Dutch figure (17.3%). Southern women have also displaced their northern sisters. Greece and Portugal share the worst figures, each with nearly 31% overweight. For Danish women, it's just over 16%. The consequences of these blowouts are dire: obesity is linked to a slew of problems, among them high blood pressure, heart attacks and digestive and respiratory disorders.
Why have so many southerners deserted the diet that served them so well? Isabel do Carmo, vice president of the Portuguese Society for the Study of Obesity, argues that they have not so much quit the Mediterranean way as added to it. "Portuguese still eat more fish than anyone, and we still consume beans and rice and vegetables and olive oil. But now we also eat the other things, the supermarket things — sweet drinks, chips, candy, cakes, American sauces — meaning an enormous total calorie intake." Endocrinologist Do Carmo sees the change as part of a "cultural revolution" related to southerners' increased buying power. "Before in Portugal there were a lot of hungry people. Now these poor people can afford to eat, and they do so all they can." She also blames the southern weight gain on the shift from active to sedentary jobs, from walking or bicycles to cars, and on the "enormous commercial pressure to buy processed foods."
Antonia Trichopoulou, a leading nutritionist who has spent 25 years studying the Mediterranean diet, also blames the fast food culture for the bulge in Greek bellies, aggravated by lack of exercise, increased stress and rising incidence of depression. Fashion and status have also played a part. "The Greeks felt that they had to prove they were Europeans, so they puffed more foreign-blend cigarettes, ate more foreign processed foods and reached for whiskey rather than homegrown wines."
Like the Spaniards and Portuguese, older Greeks may gorge themselves and their children because they still remember hard times. George Panotopoulos, president of the Hellenic Society for the Study of Obesity, thinks the Greek diet was at its best when the country was at its worst. After World War II, meat was a rarity and thousands of Greeks survived by eating such food as bread and beans, soaked in olive oil. Today, they eat more meat than the British.
The drop in the number of families who rely on traditional food has not been as pronounced in Italy, which may explain why under 20% of Italian men are in the overweight or seriously overweight categories — with only 4.3% in the latter. For women the total is slightly lower, though 5.4% are in the serious category. But they too are losing their good eating habits, says Michele Carruba, director of the Research Center on Obesity at the University of Milan. He says bringing back Mediterranean values "means going head-to-head with some powerful economic groups. The advertising budget of Coke alone is a lot more than Italy spends on food research."
The family meal theme has been seized upon by the church. A headline in the Italian bishops' daily paper Avvenire in November read: "The Hamburger? It's Atheist." Beneath it, historian Massimo Salani argued that people have forgotten the sacredness of food. "What's missing is the community and sharing aspect," he says. "Certainly fast food isn't a Catholic model." An accompanying editorial decries a "monstruous regression" in Italian eating habits.
Most experts think the only way to restore the Mediterranean diet to those who invented it is by education, but few governments give it a high priority. A spokesman for the Health Ministry in Madrid said it had no statistics on obesity, and no plans to gather them. Portugal's Do Carmo says, "There is no money for this in our health service." In Greece, despite a campaign under way by Trichopoulou to promote paradosiako, or traditional, products, the Health Ministry this year scrapped its department dealing with nutrition, according to Health official Olympia Thoma.
Not all the health news is bad for Greeks, however; in fact they upstage their fellow Europeans in many areas. They continue to live longer than most (they're seventh on a longevity table of 191 nations), and have the West's lowest incidence of heart disease. For reasons which may be unrelated to diet — but which the pro-fat lobbies burgeoning in the United States may seize upon — Greeks also have the E.U.'s lowest rate of dementia in people over 65: 4.1% to Finland's 13.6% at the top of the scale.
The key to this comforting news may be the diet the Greeks use but also abuse. Its most magic ingredient seems to be olive oil, in its virgin form. Various studies link it to reduced colon cancer, prevention of cardiovascular disease, lowering cholesterol and reducing arterial pressure. It may be coincidence, but Greeks are by far the world's biggest per capita consumers of olive oil — averaging about 20 liters a year, seven more than the largest producers, the Spaniards. Like dark clouds, Greek stomachs may have a silver lining.
With reporting by Greg Burke/Rome, Anthee Carassava/Athens and Jane Walker/Madrid