This opinion piece in today’s The Guardian by Louise Gray argues that in modern Italy, Spain, and Greece child obesity has risen to levels familiar in Anglo-American society and the healthy Mediterranean diet is a thing of the past.
Kids want fast food, especially burgers like people of all ages everywhere (I had one for lunch yesterday, from Wendy’s, the current $4.00 special). Or KFC, or wings, or pizza – oops, pizza was invented in Italy, and not mentioned in the article.
Think of something else, chips, that will do.
Reading the article I was reminded of the many articles that argue the Mediterranean diet is essentially a myth, in the sense of its alleged healthful quality over other diets. See this interesting one by Frederic Patenaude.
Some authorities argue there was a healthy Mediterranean diet at one time, but by the last century it disappeared due to the prevalence of refined flour, sugar, and other processed foods supplied by modern food production. See this recent article by Dr. Phil Maffetone.
Even if one assumes the fast food diet of today is less healthy than what it replaced in these countries, The Guardian piece does not tarry on other salient considerations. What about the ubiquity of motor transport? The bicycle, itself a comparative luxury at one time, was an icon of Italian society, so important it was the centrepiece of a famous film, The Bicycle Thief.
And it takes human motive power to run it.
Today there are school buses, trams and trains, and mom and dad’s car or motorbike to ferry you around. No hikes down the side of a mountain, or across town and vale, to attend school as was commonplace for the many children who didn’t live near one well into the 20th century.
There is no way people today expend the calories earlier generations did walking and cycling. Cycling has returned to all western societies, but mainly as a sports or leisure activity. Only slowly is it re-assuming its early primary role of moving people to place of work, school, worship, or entertainment.
Dr. Maffetone notes the importance of today’s greatly increased sedentariness and “screen time”. The Guardian devotes a couple of lines to it, yet the focus is on fast food as if something special attaches to that component of the modern lifestyle.
What about life expectancy? It is about 83 today for Italy. It was about 68 in 1970. So even with an apparently deficient diet built on processed flour, sugar, and now fast food, you can expect to live over 10 years longer than someone your age in 1900. The diet was better then but people didn’t live as long. Why is that? The article does not go there.
I doubt the current life expectancy will fall because school kids are fatter than they should be; it will probably continue to rise, in fact.
The Guardian piece is rather value-laden with its emphasis on well-known Western, and mostly American, fast foods and the supposed evils of multi-national marketing. As I said earlier, the ur-fast food, pizza, was invented in Italy, and indeed a version of it always existed around the Mediterranean.*
The cheeseburger I had yesterday tasted good, came reasonably hot, had a large piece of fresh lettuce and tomato on it, a little mayo, and a tasty bun. It provided good nutrition in numerous food groups. I skipped the fries and sweet soda, and it was more than enough for lunch – for $4.00! That’s a miracle of modern food technology and production, from the international business system dimly viewed by The Guardian.
Was that meal inherently more dangerous than a bowl of pasta or risotto using some combination of olive oil, cream, sausage or other meat, parmesan, tomatoes, cured olives, and cooked mushrooms? I don’t think so.
Should people eat wisely, follow by and large the old Mediterranean ways and walk, cycle, and exercise like tigers? Sure.
But not everyone chooses wisely when they eat, and diet is or should be a personal, and family, matter. At bottom, families have the responsibility to educate their children on food choices as well as the importance of exercise, less screen time, visiting the doctor and dentist, and the rest.
The state has a limited role – notably via education in the schools. It should not compel though, e.g., telling families what to feed their children for school lunch. Freedom is important too. People at day’s end should have the right to eat, and drink, what they want, for themselves and their progeny. Our tradition of individual liberty vouchsafes that right to us.
Children still belong to the family, not to the state.
Hence, when Gray’s article states that “Ronald McDonald” is everywhere, with the implication of course that there is something wrong with that, we should remember Ronald is wherever he is because people want him there, the people who walk in to lay down their money. Just as many want fish and chips in the U.K. Or chips slathered with mayo in Belgium. Or dirigible-size sausages and dumplings in Germany.
Or pizza in Italy.
*There is no sense in saying that “real” pizza wasn’t laden with meat and cheese like we make it today: it’s full of carbohydrate, oil, and garnishings of some kind that are not part of any reasonable slimming program.
Note re image: The image above was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on the film The Bicycle Thief linked in the text. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner, applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.