Mediterraneans Abandon Their Famous Diet The Mediterranean diet is not alive and well in 2011 — even in the seaside Italian town where it was first studied. Obesity rates in Italy are soaring, especially among young people. The heart of the problem: Even in Italy, healthy peasant food like fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil and fish isn't cheap.

Mediterraneans Abandon Their Famous Diet

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Reporter Jeremy Cherfas recently visited Pioppi to try and figure out why. His first stop is a museum devoted to Keys' research.

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JEREMY CHERFAS: Keys, who ate it, lived to be 101 years old. The problem is that in Italy generally and even here in Pioppi, home of the Mediterranean diet, it's being ignored.

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CHERFAS: When Ancel Keys first came to Italy with the U.S. Army in World War II - and his name is the K in the Army's emergency K-rations - he was struck by the how little heart disease he saw among poor people in Italy, compared to well-fed northern Europe and America. That's because the traditional Mediterranean diet is more than just tasty - it's actually good for you.

ANGELO PIETROBELLI: The Mediterranean diet is absolutely something that we are trying to pursue every day.

CHERFAS: That's Angelo Pietrobelli, a physician and an associate professor of pediatrics and of nutrition at the University of Verona.

PIETROBELLI: Unfortunately, in particular among adolescents, they try to avoid Mediterranean diet because they try to quote-unquote "imitate" the U.S. diet.

CHERFAS: Of course it isn't just fast food and sodas.

PIETROBELLI: Approximately 20 percent of subjects between six to 12 years of age are staying in front of TV approximately four hours per day.

CHERFAS: Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

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CHERFAS: Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

CHERFAS: Zachary Nowak, a food historian who teaches at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, says the original Mediterranean diet was a diet of poverty, not of choice. Keys' original study, he points out, included research on Crete. And the researchers there asked a very interesting question.

ZACHARY NOWAK: Much of the growth of the industrial global diet has been dedicated to satisfying a hunger for meat, fat and sugar.

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CHERFAS: Even McDonald's sounds better in Italian. Whether you're in the U.S. or here in Italy, the problem is the same. As Angelo Pietrobelli points out, the global industrial diet of meat and sugar is cheap - whereas healthy peasant food is not.

PIETROBELLI: Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and olive oil are very expensive. And also, fish is really quite expensive too.

CHERFAS: For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Cherfas in Rome.

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