I recently traveled to Naples for a short weekend, and found the city to be the pulsing beat of Italy’s immense heart, or maybe it is the heart attack…More on that soon.
There is so much of Naples that reminds of the italian-american way of life. The migration to America MUST have started here in Naples – the food, the language, the character.
Naples is a special place – historic, chaotic, dirty, demented – i panni spesi (the laundry hung everywhere), baskets being used to hand things down onto streets (who needs stairs?), and pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Its home to the mozzarella di bufala, da best! Pompei and Vesuvio are down the road and Capri and Ischia are just a hop on a traghetto across the bay of naples. And then, there is the pizza.
But Naples is poor. At least, poorer than the northern part of Italy. And it shows. The garbage issue is real. The infrastructure is lacking. The city is in dire need of repair not only of social services but of their precious historic sites and buildings. The aquarium, that was maybe considered once famous, is in a very sorry state.
But most striking to me, as a nutritionist, and an american one at that, was the vast amount of obesity amongst the population. There were plenty of overweight individuals, but many more seemed obese. There is a big difference. Put it this way, if you are 5 foot 9 inches, your normal weight hovers around 125 to 160 pounds depending on your muscle mass. If you are overweight, that range is 160 to 200. Obese, you are are well over 200 pounds and you have fat accumulation that can have dire effects on your health and immune system.
I noticed many more overweight and obese individuals as compared to Romans for example, particularly amongst young children to teens. I noticed more fat children than I do in the US. SCARY. Why is this? Why is this southern italian city so susceptible when it is that much closer to accessing the classic mediterranean diet, considered one of the most healthy? Is it the pizza? Is it the baba (sweet cakes)? Is it poverty?
According to the OECD: About 1 in 10 people is obese in Italy, significantly less than the OECD average of 1 in 6. More than 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women are overweight. OECD projections indicate that overweight rates will increase by a further 5% within ten years. In Italy, 1 in 3 children is overweight, one of the highests rate in the OECD.
Check out this graph comparing Italy in the past, as well as future projections of overweight and obesity prevalence. The predicated trend doesn’t seem as bad as where the US, Canada, Australia, or even Spain are heading, and the slope of the line for Italy isn’t so shockingly steep as all of the countries have increasing rates.
But the trend is there.
One study, done 15 years ago (so let’s assume things have gotten worse) showed that the prevalence of obesity in Naples among girls around the age of ten, was 5.2 times as high as in France, 3.3 times as high as in Holland, 1.7 times as high as in USA (yes, can you believe it!), 2.5 times as high as in Milan. Boys showed similar patterns.
Well, there are explanations. My friend Jeremy, recently did a stellar piece on NPR about how the mediterranean diet is disappearing. This is a tragedy, as the Mediterranean diet is known to be one of the most healthy ways of eating – with heart and cancer protective benefits, as well as consuming whole simple foods. Jeremy wrote that “36 percent of 12- to 16-year-olds are overweight or obese.” Yikes. The diet is definitely changing – as the whole world is going through a global shift in their diet to more simple, sometimes cheaper, and basically crappier foods. This “new” and western diet is high in sugar and fat, low in nutrients and quick to cook and get access to.
Another study showed that “in the central, eastern, and southern regions of Europe, prevalence rates are higher than in the western or northern regions. This geographic pattern can be explained, at least in part, by different socioeconomic conditions, as well as by lifestyle and nutritional factors. The prevalence of obesity in Spain and Italy, in particular, is high, and …urbanisation and the globalisation of certain lifestyle factors have had a negative impact on the traditional Mediterranean diet”.
Dude! Look at Sicily, Mrs. ala mediterraneo. But Italy has been kicking its ass, as the map shows, for years. What is a little obesity gonna do? Yo!
Big issues such as equality and poverty, which impact diets and access to quality foods and lifestyle choices, cannot be ignored either. Women with poor education in Italy are 3 times more likely to be overweight than more educated women. And just look at the graph below at how Italian women compare to other countries. Sad isn’t it?
Changes in living conditions and socioeconomic factors related to obesity prevalence are also to blame. Analyses of sedentary and non-sedentary leisure activities in EU countries showed that obesity and overweight are strongly associated with sedentary lifestyle and a lack of physical activity. Another global trend that is being seen everywhere…
So, yeah, maybe it is the pizza and baba, or maybe it is handing those baskets down from windows instead of walking upstairs to get the keys, but the trends don’t look good for Italy.