Why are so many Italian children overweight?

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Italy has one of the highest percentages of overweight children in the world. Photo: Shutterstock
09:31 CET+01:00
Italy may be famed for its healthy lifestyle and Mediterranean diet – but the country is facing severe future health problems because of its overweight children.

The annual OECD health report released on Wednesday warned that rates of overweight and obese children would become a key issue for Italy over the coming years.

The report stated that the number of overweight and obese children in Italy was “among the highest in the world” and that this will “lead to a greater demand for healthcare in the future.”

In fact, among OECD countries, Italy has the second highest rate of overweight children behind Greece.

Across the bel paese around 30 percent of all children are overweight. It is an unexpected statistic – made even more surprising when you consider that Italy, where the life expectancy is 82.8 years, is generally one of the healthiest countries in the OECD.

But what's behind the expanding waistlines of Italy's children? Could it be that the much-lauded Mediterranean diet, based around fresh fruit, vegetables and olive oil, is dying out?

In a country renowned for its regional variations in cuisine, Italians do not follow a rigid set of eating customs, making it easier for commercial food advertisers to exploit. 

“There is actually a lack of strong eating habits in this country,” said Pamela Damiano, a spokesperson for Slow Food – an Italian movement which seeks to protect food traditions and promote 'good, clean and fair' foods around the globe.

“This lack has been seized upon by advertisers, who are now pushing commercial products on Italians.”

Italy's younger generation are increasingly eating more processed foods, more junk food and more sugary sweets and drinks.

A notable example of this can be seen in an aggressive advertising campaign launched by Coca-Cola in Italy in 2011.

The campaign, which was dubbed 'buon appetito con Coca-Cola' ('good appetite with Coca-Cola'), used nostalgic images of families to try to get Italians to consider the drink as an essential item on the dinner table, replacing the traditional wine and water.

But the advert met with backlash from parents and defenders of the Italian diet, who accused the company of promoting alien and unhealthy eating practices.

Criticism aside, the majority of the food and drink young Italians now consume are foreign imports, as the opening last month of a Domino's Pizza shop in Milan and the potential arrival of Starbucks indicate.

But the propensity of young Italians to shun healthier and more traditional options in favour of the homogenized flavours of a globalized world damages the healthy traditions of the Mediterranean diet and comes at a cost.

“Simple industrial flavours nearly always carry a higher calorie count,” Damiano said.

But the changing tastes of Italy's young only tell half the story: it's also about how food is produced. Gone are the days of local, open-air markets and rustic delicatessens and bakers.

The vast majority of Italians now do their shopping in massive supermarket chains and are buying lower-quality industrial products where once upon a time they bought artisanal ones.

Where sweet cakes and biscuits would once have been a treat from the local baker, children now have the opportunity to eat mass-produced, chemical-packed snacks on a daily basis.

“It paves the way for an unbalanced diet, instead of favouring a simpler, less refined and more wholesome one,” Damiano lamented.

But it's not just diet. Many commentators have pointed the finger at the sedentary lifestyle led by Italian youngsters, who spend some of the highest number of hours in Europe on the computer, watching TV and chatting on their smartphones.

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“Today children have so many electronic distractions – they practically have the world at home and so they have less need to get out and are therefore much less active,” secondary school teacher Martina Innocenti told The Local.

“Parents view the world as dangerous too – and so children are actively discouraged from going outside and are often accompanied right up to the school gate.”

In order to combat the ever increasing number of overweight children, the Italian government has invested a lot in creating strong physical education programmed to try to counteract the effects of the lifestyles of Italy's young today.

A number of educational programmes based around food have been launched too, as have attempts at creating healthier school dinners, as the government tries to prevent an obesity epidemic further down the line.

But Innocenti thinks it will be an uphill struggle, citing the break-time snacks children were bringing to school.

“Back in my day I ate some homemade cake or something from the local bakers – now they nearly all eat pre-packaged junk.” 

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