The XX Factor

Oversize Italians

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This morning NPR had a report from the home of the Mediterranean Diet, the town of Pioppi in Italy, that Italians are becoming some of the largest citizens of Europe. More than one-third of Italians ages 12 to 16 are overweight or obese. The report talked about the work of American nutrition researcher Ancel Keys, who came to Italy during World War II, was impressed with the health benefits of the diet the Italians ate, adopted it himself, and lived to be 101. There is a little museum in Pioppi devoted to Keys’ work, and the reporter read a quote from Keys in which the scientist described his diet: “a good pasta with beans, a lot of bread” vegetables, fruits, olive oil and occasionally meat and fish.  Hearing this, my initial reaction was, “Eat lots of pasta and bread to get thin?”  The report went on to try to identify why Italians have strayed from their high-carb diets, and the source of their extra pounds, and the villain was meat.

The story made the case that around the world when people who have mostly lived on staples (pasta, bread, rice, corn) switch to American-style high-fat, high-meat diets, their weight soars. But what does this mean to all the people pushing Atkins-style high-protein diets, and researchers such as Gary Taubes, who believe easily available carbohydrates are the reason so many people are so fat? This story was a reminder that the search for a single cause of the alarming world-wide increase in body size is bound to fail, just as is an attempt to find a pharmaceutical which will end obesity.  When Keys went to Italy, the great-grandparents of today’s fat teenagers were poor people who were hard-pressed to get enough calories and spent more of their days engaged in physical labor. That world has flipped. We now have to expend psychological effort to avoid ever-available food, and schedule some minimum amount of time a day away from the desk. If we were to suddenly eliminate meat from the diet of today’s obese I doubt it would be the equivalent of a gastric bypass.  All this makes me wonder that unless we go back to conditions of food scarcity and physical labor, is the human race on a path to a majority of us having bodies completely different from our ancestors?