For children in Greece, Spain and Italy, the Mediterranean diet is dead, according to the World Health Organization, which says that children in Sweden are more likely to eat fish, olive oil and tomatoes than those in the south of Europe.  In Cyprus, a phenomenal 43% of nine-year-old boys and girls are overweight or obese. Greece, Spain and Italy also have rates of more than 40%. The Mediterranean countries that gave their name to the famous diet that is supposed to be the healthiest in the world have children with the biggest weight problem in Europe.
Sweets, junk food and sugary drinks have displaced the traditional diet based on fruits and vegetables. fish and olive oil, said Dr. Joao Breda, head of the WHO European office for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.
"The Mediterranean diet for children in these countries is gone," he said at the European Obesity Congress in Vienna. "There is no longer a Mediterranean diet, those who are close to the Mediterranean diet are Swedish children, the Mediterranean diet is gone and we have to recover it."
Children in southern Europe eat few fruits and vegetables and drink a lot of sugary drinks and other sweet drinks, Breda said. They sting. They eat sweets. They consume too much salt, sugar and fat in their food. And they barely move. "Physical inactivity is one of the issues that is most significant in the countries of southern Europe," he said. "A man in Crete in the 60s would need 3,500 calories because he went up and down the mountain."
The data come from the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative of the WHO European Region, which has been in operation since 2008 and now involves more than 40 countries that present weight and height data for their children. The latest figures come from data collected between 2015 and 2017. "They are very high quality data," said Breda.
The countries with the lowest levels of childhood obesity are Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, but all are going through a "nutritional transition", moving towards a western diet that can change the image. Children in Tajikistan already consume large quantities of sugary soft drinks.
France, Norway, Ireland, Latvia and Denmark also have low rates, ranging from 5% to 9%. The Irish rate is 20%. The United Kingdom does not provide data for the study, but approximately one in three children are overweight or obese when they leave primary school at the age of 11.
But the good news is that the Mediterranean countries are tackling the problem and having some success is decreasing rates of childhood obesity. At least three quarters of children in Italy eat fruit every day or most days, for example. "There is progress," Breda said. "They recognize that there is a problem and they are trying to do something."