The Italian Paradox: Fit to Fat in a Generation

Everyone has heard of the French Paradox. French people have very low rates of heart disease despite covering every meal in tonnes of butter, preferring only the fattiest liver paté and washing each meal down with a good measure of rich red wine. Frustratingly for the fairer sex of other nations, and according to the title of Mireille Guiliano’s # 1 best seller, French Women also Don’t Get Fat, despite enjoying this medley of richness that makes our arteries shudder at the mere thought of it.

Playing on this theme, and turning things 180 degrees, in his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan talks of an American Paradox. That for a nation of people quite so extensively obsessed with food and calories counting, and a habit of following every latest diet fad, it is a small wonder that America is officially the fattest nation on the planet.

Well, Italy now has a paradox of its own. It is true that it can partially lay claim ownership of the original Mediterranean diet and Extra Virgin lifestyle revered for its purist ideals, local properties and healthy, wholesome ingredients. Italians, however, are no more immune to global processes and changes than the Americans or the British, who have seen obesity sky-rocket at the spread of the fast food industry.

The Italian Paradox, therefore, lies in the fact that the nation seems to have gone from fit to fat in a single generation. According to the OECD, at 1 in 10, Italy can still claim one of the lowest adult obesity rates in the Western world – on par with their slender French neighbors. However, with a 36% obesity rate, rapidly catching up with children in the US, Italian kids face a bleak future.

The problem is, while the older generations have maintained the Mediterranean habits of their youth, according to a study by the University of Bologna, younger Italians tend to give up the traditional diet and lifestyle in favour of more industrial, faster foods.

Unlike Italy, however, France does not have this inter-generational problem. In fact, childhood obesity is still less than 10% and is projected to remain so for the next decade. The answer may well lie in the fact that while Italian kids abandon their traditional food ways, the pride and strong culture of food held by the French means that they are the epitome of a foodie mule stubbornly resisting the health effects of fast food globalisation.

You see, French parents socialise their kids to love and live for food. According to a recent New York Times Motherlode article by Karen Billon, the author of “French Children Eat Everything”:

French parents teach their children to eat like we teach our kids to read: with love, patience and firm persistence they expose their children to a wide variety of tastes, flavors and textures that are the building blocks of a varied, healthy diet”.

So what can we learn here? I mean, we emulate much from Italy’s rich culinary past – Under The Tuscan Gun certainly does. Yet, Italy’s borrowed food present and future looks more and more like a carbon copy of our own. With all said and done, putting good, Extra Virgin food on the table may no longer be enough if we want to avoid the Italian Paradox in our own families.

As the gastronomic tables turn, it may well be advisable to mix things up a little. A healthful Mediterranean style diet combined with a French persistence for socialising kids to love, respect and treasure food may well turn out to be the best recipe for a healthy and happy future generation. Oh and there are culinary social movements and other groups of people already trying and encourage others to do just that (Slow Food immediately comes to mind), but more on that another time.