Almost 20 million Italians lead sedentary lives, and the national obesity rate is up to 11.4% as of last year, the fifth annual Italian Obesity Barometer Summit heard Tuesday.
These are surprising statistics in the birthplace of the much-touted Mediterranean diet that is considered the benchmark for healthy living.
Only 5% eat the five portions of fruit and vegetables recommended by the World Health Organization. Some 54% of Italians weigh themselves monthly and 24% weekly, the report said.
“Obesity is a very complex illness and if environmental factors certainly have a great responsibility in the accumulation of weight, the susceptibility to getting ill is given by genetic and biological factors that can today be combated with new and innovative drugs within the framework of a multidisciplinary approach,” said Paolo Sbraccia, deputy vice president of the Italian Barometer Diabetes Observatory.
“Italy is one of the countries with the lowest levels of physical activity,” said Roberta Crialesi, a director of the integrated health service system of national statistics institute Istat, saying “the problem gets worse the older you get”. In fact, if 23.6% of 18-24-year-olds have sedentary lifestyles, that rises to 67.2% of the over 74s.
Looking at the emerging situation more closely, one of the possible causes of such an alarming rise in obesity in Italy is the decline of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, fish and olive oil. The Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers.
However, in recent years, Italy has seen an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs), fast foods and sugary drinks, especially among children and young people. These foods, widely acknowledged to be the principal reason for obesity in the US, where the rate is an astonishing 39.6%, are high in calories, fat, sugar and salt, but low in nutrients and fiber. They also tend to displace healthier foods from the diet, leading to an imbalance in energy intake and expenditure.
Another possible cause of obesity in Italy is the lack of physical activity among the population. In a country known for its dynamism and energy, the World Health Organization (WHO) statistic that only 19% of Italian adults meet the recommended levels of physical activity is a stunning development.
Physical activity helps to burn calories, maintain muscle mass, regulate appetite and prevent chronic diseases. However, many Italians face barriers to physical activity, such as lack of time, facilities, motivation or social support.
Promoting the Mediterranean diet as a cultural heritage and a healthy lifestyle choice is seen as one of the possible solutions, but this is already being done and intensifying such a program would provide small results.
Regulating the marketing and availability of UPFs and fast foods is a more realistic and effective solution. Increasing the opportunities and incentives for physical activity in schools, workplaces and communities, and raising awareness and education about the health risks and consequences of obesity, are all part of a multi-pronged approach to curb the rising obesity that is spreading on a global level as the “American way of life” that features UPFs and little activity spreads.