New survey shows that Greece has the “fattest” children in Europe? Not exactly

Headlines today presented a new study citing Greek children as the “fattest” in Europe . This doesn’t surprise me, it was after all one of the reasons I started this blog: not only to promote the traditional Greek Diet outside of Greece, but to encourage Greeks to return to this type of eating. But first of all let me clarify why the title of that article is misleading. The study was carried out in only 7 countries, and the European Union is composed of 27 countries known as member states, countries such as the U.K., France, Italy and Germany were missing from this study, so you can’t really say that Greek children are the fattest.

The survey
Having said that, yes Greece has a high rate of childhood obesity, among the highest. According to a survey of the World Obesity Federation of children of 7 European countries (Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Spain). Greek children had the highest rates of obesity, highest Body Mass Index (BMI) and highest waist circumference. The study was published today in the scientific journal PLoS-ONE. These increasing rates of obesity are not only due to the change in diet, obviously, there are many factors, and I have presented some of them in a previous post. We know that increased income, rise in the number of supermarkets, working women having less time to cook, eating out more often in fast-food restaurants, and of course, less exercise are some of those reasons.

What do the experts say…
I spoke to Manolis Manolarakis, Dietitian and President of the Union of Dietitians and Nutritionists of Greece, and here is what he said: “After World War II, there was a major population shift from rural areas to urban centers with a significant proportion migrating to other countries. This resulted at first, in a decline of agricultural production and later, caused many Greeks to stop consuming their own products and start consuming standardized packaged food” and he adds “Today highly processed food and fast food has become a very important element in the Greek diet”.

As I have mentioned in the past, many people think it’s the Greek diet with all that olive oil causing the problem. When I asked Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Preventative Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Athens Medical School who also collaborated with Harvard for the development of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, this was her answer: “There has been a misunderstanding in the role of oil in the rise of obesity in the Mediterranean countries. Oil was considered the reason that there was an increase of obesity in this region, however it is the result of inadequate physical activity and a surplus of calories. Certainly olive oil has many calories, but a diet can be followed that can include oil while staying within normal limits calorie wise. This can be accomplished by combining olive oil with vegetables, therefore achieving a medium caloric level dish”, she adds.

So there goes that myth…

The problem is that Greek children do not follow a Greek Mediterranean style diet anymore. In my professional experience what we see is that the diet of Greek children is based on processed foods with added sugars, processed carbohydrates, meat-heavy meals, high intake of snacks such as cookies and cakes,  beverages with calories such as juice, chocolate milk and soft drinks, add to that reduced physical activity and you have an increased risk for obesity.

But there is another component to this issue. According to Constantina Papoutsakis, RD, PhD, Past President of the American Overseas Dietetic Association and Research Associate at the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Harokopio University “New studies in Greek children are only beginning to reveal adverse interactions between genes and the changing environment. Greece is a country that is rapidly undergoing nutrition transition where deviations from the traditional diet and lifestyle as well as a concurrent adoption of a more Westernized dietary pattern are necessary catalysts in amplifying the obesogenic potential of various genes”.

Childhood obesity is the main priority. The Greek Ministry of Health in collaboration with other institutions organizes educational sessions on the traditional Greek diet, healthy eating, obesity and physical activity in primary and secondary schools.

Actions are being taken and a national plan has been set to address the problem of obesity in Greece, but its implementation has been problematic. There is a lack of communication and cooperation of all involved parties including government, schools, health professionals, media and the food industry.

There is awareness of these weaknesses and positive steps have been taken to overcome them. Currently, the goal is to build a comprehensive policy to promote healthy eating in the general population and to actually implement the necessary policies, laws, regulations and actions, based on targeted programs.

Will this work? Hopefully it will. Greeks do not need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to nutrition, they already know what to eat, but with the appropriate support, education and organization we will able to see positive lifestyle changes which will not only halt but will reverse the obesity epidemic.

Photo Credit: Tony Alter

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  1. med/atlantic mum says:

    you would not want to feed your self or your kids *low -fat* or *light* anything food or drinks… loaded with sugar under all names… two minutes make it yourself and make sure that they get olives and olive oil and tomato on bread before school and you too with garlic.

  2. Jim Anastasopoulos says:

    This is very interesting, years ago my parents went back to Greece for the summer, taking their grandson and my nephew with them, when they can back to Canada, i heard that our relatives back in greece complimented my 9 year old nephew for eating foods that their kids won’t eat, like octopus, sardines, Horta, olives, eggplant, etc. my mom also said that she was referred to as a xenos ( foreigner) but relatives said that we are More Greek in Canada then Greeks in Greece. We never miss an Easter in the back yard with a lamb on a spit, we have parades for Independence Day, we go to church and some of us even fast for the 180 days, my parents still go out to pick wild greens, our children go to Greek school, learn Greek traditional dances, they play soccer on Greek teams, we have Greek festivals here in Canada that would rival any festival in North America with regard to food and entertainment. I am proud to still have my papou in Greece aged 103, all the others lived into their nineties.. This was because of the traditional diet. Greeks have to do what they always did, live with the land not work in office buildings in a country that has almost 300 days of sunshine per year. This is another reason that Greece has economic issues. Thanks very much for your posts Elena, great website!

  3. Linn, Thank you for your comment. Yes you are right, the low fat approach is common here especially in the younger generations who worry about the olive oil in the salad, but will easily eat a sugary cereal because it is low in fat and think that it is healthy.

  4. Somewhere I picked up that there are more kids in the Netherlands following the Mediterranean diet than there are currently in Greece; can’t remember where … But on to the GREAT FAT DEBATE! With the “low fat” approach now hardwired into the system here in the States, I find people take some persuading to feel comfortable making something as simple as a salad with traditional proportions of 3 parts olive oil to one part vinegar. Sounds like the “low fat” approach is also hard wired into the Greek system. I am familiar with many of the arguments from Willet and Mozaffarian from the Harvard side. Thanks for the insight and explanation of how it looks from the Greek side.