Mak­ing the Mediter­ranean diet sexy again

De­spite be­ing healthy and hav­ing a place on the UNESCO her­itage list, the diet is steadily los­ing ground to fast food

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - By CINE CORNU in Mi­lan

It­may be on the UNESCO her­itage list, but global ex­perts warn the Mediter­ranean diet, prized for its health ben­e­fits, is los­ing so much ground to the fast food cul­ture that the de­cline may be ir­re­versible.

Rich in veg­eta­bles, fruits, ce­re­als and ex­tra vir­gin olive oil, the Mediter­ranean diet is based on a mod­er­ate con­sump­tion of fish, dairy prod­ucts, eggs, red wine, and a small amount of meat.

Found to vary­ing de­grees in all coun­tries bor­der­ing the Mediter­ranean Sea, it was named in 2010 onto UNESCO’s In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage of Hu­man­ity list for seven coun­tries, from Croa­tia to Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Por­tu­gal.

But the diet, which the United Na­tions also praises for pro­mot­ing hos­pi­tal­ity, neigh­bor­li­ness, in­ter­cul­tural di­a­logue and cre­ativ­ity, is go­ing rapidly out of fash­ion.

“In Greece, it has de­creased by 70 per­cent over the last 30 years, in Spain 50 per­cent”, Lluis Serra-Ma­jem, head of the In­ter­na­tional Foun­da­tion of Mediter­ranean Diet, told AFP at a re­cent con­fer­ence in Mi­lan.

The ex­perts, from Is­rael to New Zealand to Swe­den, ex­plored ways to re­vive the diet, from mak­ing it ap­peal­ing to teenagers, to per­suad­ing peo­ple to buy fresh and some­times costlier food in a pe­riod of eco­nomic cri­sis.

In Spain, celebri­ties like ac­tress Pene­lope Cruz may add some glam­our with their love of Mediter­ranean cui­sine, but ever fewer peo­ple are en­ticed.

Less than 15 per­cent of the Span­ish pop­u­la­tion still eats a Mediter­ranean diet, while 50 to 60 per­cent do so some­times. Be­tween 20 to 30 per­cent have ditched it al­to­gether, Serra-Ma­jem said.

And it’s the same in Greece, says An­to­nia Tri­chopoulou from theHel­lenic Health Foun­da­tion. Un­sur­pris­ingly, over 65-year- olds are the best at eat­ing tra­di­tional dishes, while the youngest gen­er­a­tions have suc­cumbed to the lure of fast food.

“The de­cline has var­i­ous causes. We are wit­ness­ing a glob­al­iza­tion of eat­ing habits, with (the spread of) the ‘Western diet’”, said Serra-Ma­jem, point­ing a fin­ger of blame at the growth of the tourism sec­tor in par­tic­u­lar.

It has been more marked in coastal ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly in Spain or on Italy’s Adri­atic coast.

“Un­con­trolled tourism leads to high ur­ban­iza­tion and... in­creased con­sump­tion of meat, re­fined flours and a re­duc­tion of the tra­di­tional diet,” he said.

Or­anges in Ibiza

The change in eat­ing habits is hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on pub­lic health with the rise of obe­sity, cancer, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and di­a­betes among pop­u­la­tions pre­vi­ously known for their longevity.

Seven in 10 Greek adults are now over­weight or obese, and about 11 per­cent have di­a­betes, ac­cord­ing to Tri­chopoulou.

The Mediter­ranean diet com­bined with phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity could pre­vent many di­a­betes cases, said Serra-Ma­jem.

While some re­gions are do­ing bet­ter at re­sist­ing fast food — such as south­ern Italy and north­ern Africa — the race is on to find away to slow or re­verse the diet’s de­cline, with the meet­ing in Mi­lan just one such bid to save it.

As well as the health fall­out and as­so­ci­ated med­i­cal costs, drop­ping the diet also has an im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment since “al­most 25 per­cent of green­house gas emis­sions come from food pro­duc­tion,” he said.

It also puts at risk of ex­tinc­tion lo­cal skills and tra­di­tions such as har­vest­ing, fishing, an­i­mal hus­bandry and con­ser­va­tion.

Healthy eat­ing has not fallen by the way­side com­pletely: the Mediter­ranean diet is a hit with “ed­u­cated peo­ple and those who be­long to higher so­cial classes” in Greece, Tri­chopoulou said.

“It is more re­lated to a so­cial prob­lem and ed­u­ca­tion than money, be­cause veg­eta­bles and fruits are rel­a­tively cheap,” she said, but peo­ple are cook­ing less and ad­ver­tise­ments pro­mote su­gary or pre­served prod­ucts.

What’s needed is to en­cour­age ini­tia­tives in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and find a way of sell­ing sus­tain­able tourism — in­clud­ing a re­turn to lo­cal food pro­duc­tion — even in mass tourism ar­eas, says in­de­pen­dent expert Florence Egal.

In Spain’s Balearic Is­lands, in­clud­ing the hugely pop­u­lar Ma­jorca and Ibiza, “thou­sands of tourists eat at buf­fets in large ho­tels”, while “in the coun­try­side or­ange trees are weighed down with un­picked fruit”, which rots be­cause im­ported or­anges cost less.

And she warns, as groves are aban­doned and mi­gra­tion to cities in­creases, the Mediter­ranean diet takes one more step to­wards be­com­ing a thing of the past.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Rich in veg­eta­bles, fruits, ce­re­als and ex­tra vir­gin olive oil, the Mediter­ranean diet is based on a mod­er­ate con­sump­tion of fish, eggs, red wine, and a small amount of meat.

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