Mediterranean Diet Needs Support, Not Obstruction, in Fight Against Obesity

A new study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that eating a Mediterranean diet during pregnancy could reduce the risk that the unborn baby will develop weight problems during their childhood. The research adds to the mounting evidence highlighting the health benefits of the world-renowned diet and should be welcome news for those countries struggling to prevent their populations from putting on the pounds – especially at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the urgency of the fight against obesity.

Bizarrely enough, however, the Mediterranean diet is currently under threat—even in its own backyard—from misguided measures supposedly intended to help citizens make healthier choices. Europe’s plans to overhaul its nutritional labeling system, for example, are at risk of being derailed by the limitations of one system put forward, Nutri-score. Spain and six other European countries are pushing for Nutri-score’s implementation—despite the fact that countless experts have warned that the oversimplistic scheme unfairly penalizes some of the mainstays of the Mediterranean diet. While the drive to bring in a clearer nutritional labeling system is well-intentioned, privileging an algorithm which actively disadvantages a diet that has been named as the healthiest in the world for four years running seems both illogical and dangerous.

COVID shines a spotlight on obesity implications

Even pre-pandemic, weight problems were already known to lead to higher risks of other serious health complications, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and orthopedic disorders, as well as strokes, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer. However, recent research suggests that sufferers of obesity are 113% more likely to be hospitalized by COVID-19, 74% more at risk of entering intensive care, and 48% more susceptible to dying from the disease.

One alarming study from the U.S. found that over three-quarters (78%) of those hospitalized from COVID were overweight or obese. Even more concerningly, there is evidence that leading vaccinations against the virus are less effective in obese people, who are not capable of creating antibodies at the same rate as their healthy counterparts.

As such, it’s imperative that individual citizens and the governments who rule them make concerted efforts to address the obesity epidemic that is sweeping much of the world, Europe included. According to the most recent data available, over half of the EU population is considered overweight. Given the numerous beneficial effects associated with the Mediterranean diet (which is practiced widely in countries like Italy and Cyprus, who enjoy some of the best health levels on the continent), it’s only logical that policymakers both at the national and EU levels would seek to promote this lifestyle to their populations.

Mixed signals from traffic light system

Despite this, the diet is actually at risk from a system purportedly designed to help boost public health by allowing consumers to make more educated choices. With numerous studies indicating that consumers find current nutritional labeling confusing and a barrier to eating a healthy diet, it’s not surprising that the EU wants to implement a harmonized front-of-pack (FOP) labeling system by 2022.

One of the leading contenders, however, threatens to confuse consumers more than they are already while dealing a body blow to some of the foods that are the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet. The Nutri-Score system works by assessing the nutritional benefits and drawbacks of a product, then grades it with a color-coded rating from A to E. The catch? The system evaluates every item on a rigid scale of 100g or 100ml and uses an oversimplified algorithm which does not account for certain ingredients which comprise an intrinsically healthy part of an overall diet, such as vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.

The ample limitations of Nutri-Score’s design mean that it unfairly maligns Mediterranean diet staples including olive oil, hard cheeses, and regional meats—even giving them lower marks than chocolate cereal or soft drinks. Understandably, this has prompted strong criticism from certain sectors, including Spanish olive oil producers, who dubbed Nutri-Score “incomplete, misleading, and as such, false.”

The controversial labeling system has even caused a political rift in Spain. Spanish agricultural minister Luis Planas has called on policymakers to “defend the interests of Spain, which is the Mediterranean diet” and insisted that “nothing that damages the Mediterranean diet and its products can be approved by the Government of Spain,” while lawmakers from two prominent parties have rebelled against the government’s support of the system. The Partido Popular party have filed a formal motion to block Nutri-Score in Spain, and both it and Vox have suggested that Spain should consider alternative labeling systems which are more transparent and less discriminatory against products from the Mediterranean diet, such as the Italian system Nutrinform. This scheme, which refrains from passing judgment on a food and simply gives its nutritional data in the form of a battery graphic, was conceived of after Italian scientists accused Nutri-Score of treating consumers “like children.”

Nutri-Score lacking nuance

The debacle has made one thing clear: while customers are crying out for a simpler nutritional label, Nutri-Score may have gone too far in the other direction. By classifying food products—whether soft drink or artisanal cheese—into five categories based on a rigid algorithm and a fixed portion size, Nutri-Score is doing a grave disservice not only to the manufacturers of the products which make up the Mediterranean diet but also to the consumers who could be dissuaded from placing them in their shopping basket.

Discouraging consumers from adopting the Mediterranean diet would be a particularly misguided policy choice at the moment when mortality rates from a global pandemic are 10 times higher in countries where over half of the adult population is overweight. Developing a more intuitive nutritional label could be an important tool in the fight against obesity, but with study after study highlighting the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, any such system should showcase its emblematic products, not slap them with poor marks.