Mediterranean diet is associated with lower weight in children but has become less common, says study

The Mediterranean dietary pattern could help children prevent obesity, but not many children in Mediterranean countries follow such a diet, say researchers.

A diet that is very similar to the traditional Mediterranean diet is associated with lower body weight and fat percentage in children; however such diets are not common among children in Mediterranean countries, say researchers.

The findings, published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, come from the EU-funded IDEFICS study (2006-2012), which is one of the largest studies to investigate health effects of a changing diet, lifestyle, and social environment and develop intervention approaches for two to ten-year olds

Led by Gianluca Tognon from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, the team from eight European countries report that eating a diet similar to the traditional Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with improvement in health status – finding that children who ate a Mediterranean-like diet were less likely to be overweight or obese, and they did not have an increased BMI and waist circumference after two years.

However, they noted that for children at least, such a diet is not necessarily a feature of Mediterranean countries anymore:

“It appears that this pattern is not common in Mediterranean children, while the Swedish children paradoxically showed the highest adherence levels,” reported Tognon and colleagues.

Study details

The current IDEFICS study the team tested whether following a Mediterranean-like diet was related to overweight or obesity by looking at whether eating such a diet (assessed at the beginning of the study) was related to changes in body composition after two years, including body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, waist-to-height ratio and fat mass percentage.
Adherence to a Mediterranean-like diet was assessed with a questionnaire, filled out by the parents, which asked about the consumption frequencies of 43 food items, and was then scored. This score was calculated by giving one point for high intakes of each food group that was considered typical of the Mediterranean diet (vegetables, fruits and nuts, fish and cereal grains), as well as one point for low intakes of foods atypical of the Mediterranean diet (such as dairy and meat products). 
Tognon and colleagues reported that that children who ate a Mediterranean-like diet were less likely to be overweight or obese, and they did not have an increased BMI and waist circumference after two years.

However, they noted that the Mediterranean-like diet is not necessarily a feature of Mediterranean countries anymore – as the data suggested that that the highest adherence to a Mediterranean-like diet was in Sweden, where children had the highest scores for cereal grains, fruits, nuts and vegetable consumption.

On the other hand, the lowest overall adherence rates were found for Cyprus, and the lowest intake frequencies of vegetables were observed in Italy.

The highest overweight and obesity rates were observed among children in Italy (more than 40% overweight or obese), followed by those in Cyprus and Spain (more than 20%). 
According to the team the results were not entirely unexpected, noting that dietary habits, especially in southern Europe are changing, particularly among young people.

While people in the Mediterranean countries may have moved away from their traditional dietary pattern, people in northern countries may have become more health conscious, they suggested. 
As a result, the EU-backed research team concluded that the promotion of dietary habits similar to a Mediterranean diet should be considered for inclusion in European childhood obesity prevention strategies.

“Although a Mediterranean dietary pattern is inversely associated with childhood obesity, it is not common in children living in the Mediterranean region and should therefore be advocated as part of EU obesity prevention strategies,” said Tognon and colleagues.

Source: Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases
Volume 24, Issue 2, Pages 205–213, doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2013.04.013
“Mediterranean diet, overweight and body composition in children from eight European countries: Cross-sectional and prospective results from the IDEFICS study”
Authors: G. Tognon, A. Hebestreit, et al

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