Greece's diet crisis

  • Jon Miller

    Executive producer, Food for 9 Billion

Woman at market Greece
A woman shops for her family at a weekly outdoor market in Chania, on the Greek island of Crete. Fresh produce is readily available, but it tends to be more expensive than processed food.

Credit: Jon Miller/Homelands Productions

TRANSCRIPT:

Introduction: Almost exactly one year ago, the world population hit 7 billion. It looks like we can expect another 2 billion by the middle of the century. Our series “Food for 9 Billion” asks what it’s going to take to keep us all fed.

We’re not doing such a great job now. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization figures around 870 million of us are chronically malnourished. Strangely enough, though, the number of overweight people is even higher – about 1.4 billion, and more than a third of those are obese. Over the last 30 years, the global obesity rate has doubled.

As Jon Miller reports, the human diet is changing, and that has serious implications for the future.

Reporter Jon Miller: Let me just start by saying that I’ve had some pretty tough assignments in my more than 20 years of reporting around the world, and this is not one of them.

Man: This one is potatoes, zucchini, mint, mizithra – the local soft cheese – olive oil and tomato.

Woman: These are the caper leaves and the capers.

Woman: You have a beautiful salad with green and red pepper, tomato, cucumber and, of course, olive oil and vinegar.

Man: And octopus – the octopus is gonna come.

Reporter: I really like Greek food – the fresh vegetables, the olive oil, the herbs, the yogurt, the wine. And lucky me! Since the 1950s, study after study has shown that the Mediterranean diet – and especially the diet of Crete, in southern Greece, where I am now – makes you live longer, protects you from heart disease and cancer, and keeps you from getting too fat. Look at lists of the world’s healthiest diets, and the one from Crete often ranks on top.

Unfortunately, hardly anybody follows it anymore.

Reporter: I meet a 16-year-old girl I’ll call Eleni in Chania, a port city of about 50,000 in western Crete. Her grandparents lived in the countryside, but she and her parents grew up in town. Her favorite musician?

Eleni: Justin Bieber.

Reporter: Her favorite foods?

Eleni: Hamburger.

Reporter: And pizza. Eleni’s been struggling with her weight for most of her life; she’s been up to about 200 pounds. Kids have taunted her at school. Her mom says she tries to lose weight, but then she lapses.

Eleni’s mother: Sometimes, she eats a lot. And she eats everything, whatever you can imagine. But other times, she’s OK. I don’t know. That’s the problem.

Reporter: She thinks Eleni’s weight issues have to do with lack of discipline and low self-esteem. But clearly, there’s something bigger going on. Today, Greece has the one of the highest obesity rates in the world. The proportion of overweight children – about 40 percent – may be the highest, except for some Pacific islands. The problem’s especially bad here in Crete, home to what could be the world’s healthiest diet. So what gives?

Christina Makratzaki: It has to do with many factors.

Reporter: Christina Makratzaki also battled obesity as a teenager. Now she’s a dietitian. We meet at a waterfront café full of European tourists.

Makratzaki: In the ’50s and ’60s, the people, they were poor, but they were healthy. They were eating very good foods – the olive oil, the olives, the green leafy vegetables that is our treasure. But they were enforced in a way, because of their poverty, to use these things.

Reporter: Then people here got a little money – from tourism, from agriculture – and everything changed.

Makratzaki: Now, we have many choices.

Reporter: Like processed food from the supermarket and fast food on the street. And soda and doughnuts and ice cream. All of it cheaper to buy, easier to prepare – and, especially for children, harder to resist – than what grandma used to make. And then there’s the marketing, a relentless bombardment of ads aimed at kids, like this one for processed meat.

Marion Nestle: World trade has opened up a world marketplace in food that’s like nothing the world had ever seen before.

Reporter: Marion Nestle is a nutritionist who wrote the books “What to Eat” and “Why Calories Count.” She says nearly every society is going through what Crete has gone through – even some of the poorest. It’s known as “the nutrition transition.”

Nestle: The nutrition transition happens very quickly. As soon as people get money, they start buying more meat and more processed foods. Well, that’s fine if you don’t eat too much of it. The problem is that we as humans, when we're confronted with large amounts of delicious food, we eat large amounts of food.

Reporter: The word “diet” actually comes from the Greek – it originally meant “way of life.” And clearly, obesity has to do with more than just what people eat.

It typically starts with the upper classes, who do less physical work and can afford to buy more fattening food. For a while, being plump is a sign of wealth and health. But then, in most places, there’s a shift. People with money start to value thinness, just as people from the countryside move to the cities, women have less time to cook, machines replace manual labor, kids watch more TV, packaged food becomes cheaper than fresh food – and pretty soon, you’ve got an epidemic.

Nestle: Health officials and policymakers are realizing what the costs of obesity are likely to be not only to the individuals themselves, but to the society. The question is what to do about it. People are trying lots of different things, and more power to them. But nobody really has an answer.

City hall snack counter Greece
The snack bar at Chania’s city hall now serves traditional baked goods.

Credit: Jon Miller/Homelands Productions

Reporter: The dietitian Christina Makratzaki shows me some of the things people are trying in Crete.

Makratzaki: Now we are arriving at the chain that I was telling you ...

Reporter: A burger chain has started serving things like freshly squeezed juice and turkey wraps. The canteen at the local bus station is offering traditional dishes, bathed in olive oil. The association of school snack bar operators has told its members to cut out the sweets and sodas at the kiosks they rent, and most have complied.

But all these things are voluntary. To find out what government’s up to, we drop in on the mayor of Chania, Manolis Skoulakis. He’s a doctor; he used to be Greece’s deputy minister of health.

It’s been a rough week. On the day we meet, the city workers are on strike. The day before that, it was the teachers.

Skoulakis says the city sponsors exercise programs and a local food festival; last spring, it helped organize visits by dietitians to some of the schools. But money is tight.

Beyond rallying volunteers, he says there’s not much the government can do.

Especially not now, with Greece in crisis. Unemployment’s 25 percent, and people are marching in the streets. I ask everyone I meet if they think the economic troubles may have a silver lining, sending people back to the old ways, eating fruits and vegetables and dessert just on Sundays. They all shake their heads. With junk food so much cheaper than fresh food, they say, the lighter people’s wallets, the heavier they’ll get. In Crete, I’m Jon Miller for Marketplace. 

Our series “Food for 9 Billion” is a collaboration of Homelands Productions, PBS NewsHour, the Center for Investigative Reporting and American Public Media's Marketplace

Like our content? Help us do more.

Support Us

Leave a Comment

via Twitter