Rebecca Coombes: Greece’s young reject the Mediterranean diet

In Athens this week, at a meeting about Europe’s obesity crisis organised by the Greek government, talk is dominated by the expanding waistlines of Europe’s children.

At the event’s smart Hellenic building surrounded by orange trees, and where lunch is veg-heavy and carb-light, it’s hard to believe that Greek’s young are ditching the Mediterranean diet.

But in a WHO surveillance project, Greek kids were the most obese in 2010, and in subsequent years. The lightening speed of change is alarming: childhood obesity in this country has doubled to more than 14% since 2000.

We heard how 30% of foods in Greek households are processed. Greece suffered the deepest reduction in GDP (20%) in Europe’s economic crisis. This has made the Greek consumer even more vulnerable to nutritionally poor, but cheap products marketed so effectively by global food conglomerates. These products at the low end of the market are more likely to contain trans fats and higher levels of salt, added sugar, and fat.

Greece is one of only two member states to recently report a net increase in the mortality rate for coronary heart disease in the under 45s.

Rejecting the traditional Southern Mediterranean diet in favour of more energy- dense Western fare is a pattern being repeated throughout the region: Susanne Løgstup, of the European Heart Network told how in Spain, 50% of the under 25s had poor adherence to the local diet.

New figures released by WHO Europe this week confirm Greece’s top spot in child weight rankings: 33% of 11 year olds are overweight, with Portugal (32%), Ireland (30%), and Spain (30%) very close behind.

Of course, it matters hugely. Professor Donal O’Shea, of University College Dublin, told this EU presidency meeting that obesity is “practically irreversible,” causing 1000 deaths per million population, per year. That’s 10 000 deaths in Greece alone last year. Bariatric surgery in children is increasing, said O’Shea, and, in line with what we know about obesity causing immune deficiency, studies are showing an impaired response to vaccination in obese children.

Europe’s response has been slow and fragmented. Finland goes top of the class for a host of targeted measures, including taxing sweets, chocolate, soft drinks, and ice cream—a move very popular with parents—and compulsory health education lessons at school: obligatory cooking lessons anyone? And the Netherlands and Switzerland have the lowest number of overweight children.

At least this week the European Commission launched an 8 point action plan to combat childhood obesity, including research funding. We’ve seen only a very limited policy response so far—let’s hope this plan takes us to the next level of action.

Rebecca Coombes is the magazine editor, BMJ.