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The Mediterranean Diet Is No Match for Sugar


Italian politicians often try to benefit from casting themselves as defenders against foreign aggressors, but Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin took many people by surprise with her criticism of the World Health Organization.

Italian politicians often try to benefit from casting themselves as defenders against foreign aggressors, but Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin took many people by surprise with her criticism of the World Health Organization.

REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

The WHO is keen to see a reduction of sugar consumption, on the grounds that current high intake leads to illnesses ranging from tooth decay to heart disease.

But WHO’s draft guidelines may now suggest that no more than 5% of an adult’s daily calories should come from free sugars, half the level that set industry lobbyists on a bender a decade ago.

“We’re against that. A healthy food culture isn’t made of interdictions,” she said Wednesday inside the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization, which at the time was hosting an international conference on nutrition, which involves governments pledging to take action to reduce obesity risks in their country.

“We should do exactly the opposite,” Lorenzin said, noting the so-called Mediterranean Diet was widely hailed as a healthy model.

The Mediterranean Diet, christened by an American scientist working in southern Italy in 1945, is now an official “intangible cultural heritage” of Italy and six other countries, according to Unesco. It entails lots of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits and vegetables, quite a bit of fish, a moderate amount of cheese and wine and very little meat.

There’s some debate about the precise location of this diet today. A survey of European 13-year-olds found excess weight problems to be greatest along the Mediterranean rim, with Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy vying for the unwanted crown. In Italy, 10.6% of kids are technically obese and the highest rates are in the southern regions where the famous Diet has its roots.

That presumably reflects the advance of modern processed foods and the way sugary drinks have pushed fruit off the table. According to the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, Italy is on track to spend more than 10% of its GDP treating obesity-related health problems by 2050.

Lorenzin’s criticism of WHO as using “science-free diktats”’ to wage war on Italian brands and confectionery traditions is probably not based on any belief that the Mediterranean Diet is still operative, but more simply reflects her political instinct that the best policy is giving people what local companies have convinced them to want. Indeed, so far it’s a carbon copy of the U.S. response to WHO’s first sugar crusade in 2002.

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