Greece No Longer a Mecca of Good Health

by | Oct 1, 2008

The Mediterranean diet continues to receive accolades from the scientific community for improving health and lowering risk of disease. But that does not mean you missed out if you chose a trip to Guatemala over Greece this past summer. A recent article in the New York Times explains that Crete, an island in Greece considered to be the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet, has all but abandoned its once exemplary eating habits for a lifestyle more like our own. Now soda, fast food and convenience stores are the norm, and these changes are taking a toll on the health of Crete’s residents.

Traditionally the people of Greece have boasted some of the world’s longest life expectancies. Now the country has the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity in Europe, affecting three-quarters of its population. In Crete, even elementary schools are battling diet-related, chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. Sadly, life spans are expected to decline dramatically for the coming generation unless something is done to reverse these trends.

According to the article, Greek epidemiologists blame the recent proliferation of large grocery stores and convenience foods for the change in habits. They also credit aggressive advertising campaigns by the food industry that target children. Indeed children seem to be the hardest hit by the shifting culture. The impact this will have on the long-term health of Greece’s youth is still unknown.

While some parents are beginning to take action against these trends, many are still reluctant to acknowledge the problem. Because of Crete’s history of poverty, pre-made convenience foods are considered a luxury they want their children to be able to enjoy. One Crete resident, Argyro Koromylla explains, “You don’t want your child complaining or feeling left out, so you give him what he wants.”

Greece’s current obesity epidemic is representative of a much broader pattern of global health problems associated with the popularization of the Western diet. While fingers have been pointed at different components of our food—fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates—as the primary culprit, the emerging view is that the changing levels of macronutrients are less the problem than the industrial processing of food in general.

Journalist and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan argues the case for abandoning refined, processed food for more traditional cuisines in his latest book In Defense of Food. In a chapter titled Escape from the Western Diet, he states, “Instead of worrying about nutrients, we should simply avoid any food that has been processed to an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature.”

The basis of Pollan’s proposal is that we know humans can thrive under a wide array of traditional diets, ranging from very high fat to very high carbohydrate to very high protein. But invariably, the health of a culture begins to decline upon the introduction of processed foods.

Indeed, Greece’s own cuisine seems to be in danger of losing its traditional roots, and the potential health ramifications are immense. Yet it does appear that Pollan’s argument is not lost on all Crete residents, and an effective intervention may still be possible. As one parent observes, “If we continue like this, we’re going to become like Americans, and no one wants that.”

This article can also be found at Synapse.

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One Response to “Greece No Longer a Mecca of Good Health”

  1. Jed Wolpaw says:

    Can you imagine what would happen to a guy who started selling pills on the corner that turned out to poison anyone who took them? But when fast food restaurants move into new communities and new countries and start selling food that turns healthy people sick, they’re good to go. Man. Either poison pills should be legal, or fast food illegal, but let’s get some consistency for crying out loud.

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