Med diet in decline on home turf, FAO warns

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Olive oil Nutrition Eu Fao

Populations around the Mediterranean are abandoning their traditional healthy diets, the FAO has warned, as incomes increase and consumers opt for more meat, saturated fats and time-saving processed foods.

The Mediterranean diet is rich in cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and olive oil. Although is the traditional diet of the Mediterranean region, it has garnered interest all over the world in recent times as a scientific spotlight has been trained on the health benefits it can confer.

For instance, recent research has indicated that the diet may have benefits for arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, hearth health and blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, lung disease, and allergies.

But despite its global reputation, and the food industry adopting some of its principals to assist in marketing of healthy foods, data shows that in its home territory data shows that it is falling out of practice.

Josef Schmidhuber, a senior economist at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), looked at general compliance with WHO/FAO dietary recommendations by populations countries in 1961/63, 1971/73, 1981/83, 1991/93 and 2001/03.

The recommendations cover intake of protein, total lipids, fatty acids, carbohydrates, total dietary fibre, sugar, cholesterol, sodium chloride/sodium, and fruits and vegetables.

“The European diet has become too fat, too salty and too sweet​,” he concluded, adding that the traditional diet, which some advocates have campaigned to be placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, has “declined into a moribund state”.

Overall, daily calorie intake in the pre-2002 EU-15 has risen from 2960 kcal to 3340 kcal in the last 40 years – an increase of 20 per cent.

EU and Mediterranean countries with the most grave dietary changes were seen to be Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta, where calorie intake has increased by 30 per cent.

Spain ranks as the country with the biggest leap in fat consumption – from 25 per cent of the diet 40 years ago, to 40 per cent now.

Interestingly, though, there are redeeming factors to the decline in Mediterranean eating habits: people do appear to be eating more fruits and vegetables and olive oil.

Forty years ago, only six of the EU-15 had more than 400g of fruit and vegetables available per person per day. Now, however, the FAO observes that all countries have reached and surpassed this limit.

However fruit and veg availability does not necessarily mean that people are actually eating enough. The data appear to be in conflict with national data indicating that people are still falling short of the recommended five portions plus per day.

In the UK, for instance, consumption among 19 to 64 year olds is under three 80g portions a day.

“This suggests that losses at the household level could account for more than 40 per cent of availability at country level.”

In the case of olive oil, which is linked to increased consumption of beneficial mono-unsaturated fatty acids (almost double in Italy and Spain), the Common Agricultural (CAP) appears to have had a part to play.

“EU subsidies to olive oil producers have pushed EU production and with it overall supply above their equilibrium levels and resulted in lower prices not only on world markets but also within the EU,”​ according to Schmidhuber.

Indeed, Schmidhuber analysed all of the dietary findings in the context of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), to investigate whether it has caused overall consumption levels to rise or promoted consumption of unhealthy foods.

Olive oil notwithstanding, his overall conclusion was that the CAP has not had a major impact – although some policy measures in the past could have accelerated (but not caused) the swift deterioration of diets in the neighbouring Near East/North African region.

In general, however, the dietary shift in Europe was attributed to increased income, the rise in supermarkets, changes in food distribution systems, and calorie needs declining as people lead more sedentary lifestyles.

In addition, more women are working outside the home, meaning that families eat out more and dine on more fast- and pre-prepared food.

The paper also looked at the dietary shifts in non-EU Mediterranean countries, which are in the midst of a nutritional shift that typically involves the addition of more carbohydrates to the diet.

In the case of Egypt, this has been accompanied by an extraordinary leap in the glycaemic load of diets, to 400g of glycaemic carbohydrates per person per day.

This story is explained by a number of factors, including a rise in incomes in the region has led to more and more reliance of food imports. Domestic food production has been limited by land and water scarcity issues.

Oil and gas exports played a part in funding these imports. In addition, however, the EU provided preferential access for off-season produce like olive oil, fruit and vegetables. In return, the non-EU countries made for a good outlet for EU surplus of goods like sugar and wheat.


Schmidhuber’s observations were included in a paper entitled ​The EU diet – Evolution, evaluation and impacts of the CAP, which was presented at a recent meeting of the California Mediterranean Consortium.

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