We recently returned from a walking trip in Spain along the Camino de Santiago. Although the trek is about 800 kilometers, we walked only the last 220 kilometers and met some wonderful people along the way. We spent one pleasant evening chatting to a plastic surgeon and a retired banker who were biking across the Camino (no small thing – trust me walking is easier). As is the custom when meeting people in their own homeland, our talk turned to healthcare in Spain. Both were bemoaning what they felt was a growing problem in Spain: obesity.

Although it didn’t appear as bad to us as it is in the U.S., obesity is clearly on the rise in the world, a problem that I’ve recently heard referred to as the “industrial global diet” high in meat, fat and sugar.  In other words it’s cheap food. High in calories. Terrible to one’s health.

Italy, the home of the Mediterranean Diet, also has an obesity problem, more the result of rising wealth than worsening poverty as more of the population adopts the industrial diet.
According to Dr. Angelo Pietrobelli, associate professor of pediatrics and nutrition at the University of Verona,  “Unfortunately, in particular among adolescents, they try to avoid Mediterranean diet because they try to ‘imitate’ the U.S. diet.”

During the 1940s, physiologist Ancel Keys, noted that the people of the seaside town of Pioppi, were living longer, healthier lives and had a much lower rate of heart disease than their well-fed Northern European counterparts. He ended up studying their diet during the 1940s and ‘50s and the Mediterranean Diet, high in fresh vegetables, fruit and fish and low in meat, was introduced to the rest of the world. Keys himself adopted the diet and died at 101 years of age.

The problem was that the Mediterranean diet was actually a poor man’s diet, “a diet of poverty, not of choice” according to food historian Zachary Nowak of the Umbra Institute of Perugia.
Obesity is not confined to Italy where about 36% of kids aged 12-16 are overweight or obese, but is spreading to Greece as well as Spain where more young people are abandoning the Mediterranean diet in favor of fast food joints.

Too bad this is what kids want to emulate about Americans.