Why are so many Italian children overweight?

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.

Why are so many Italian children overweight?
Italy has one of the highest percentages of overweight children in the world. Photo: Shutterstock

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.

“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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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.