A shopper unloads her cart at a Carrefour in Hazebrouck, France. Carrefour is the largest European retail corporation and is the destination for many shoppers as the obesity levels are exacerbated by the debt crisis.
Credit: Philippe Huguen

ROME, Italy — The stalls laden with fruit and vegetables in Rome's Campo de' Fiori market provide a splash of color that signals the delights of the Italian diet.

There are trays of Trentino apples, glistening citrus from Campania and jungle-hued varieties of salad leaves grown in market gardens around the capital. Overlooking the market, venerable stores specialize in fine Tuscan beef, handcrafted cheeses or fish freshly pulled from the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Perhaps more than other people in Europe, Italians continue to shop in such places, buying quality farm products from neighborhood stores and markets and keeping alive the national tradition for food that is delicious and healthy.

However, concern is growing that the economic crisis gripping Europe may be changing those shopping and eating habits.

More than 13 percent of Italians said they buy cheaper, lower quality food in response to the crisis, according to a recent report from the national statistics agency.

Although Italians are also buying less food overall, the data shows sales from supermarkets and discount stores rose 1.2 percent on last year, while purchases from small food shops fell 1.4 percent.

Across much of Europe, there are fears the crisis is dealing a double blow to nutritional health, forcing new poor to seek food relief in numbers not seen for decades while adding to the Continent's already burgeoning obesity problem.

"We all know that lower social status individuals have a higher obesity risk and the current crisis may increase the lower social status population," says Dr. Jeroen Lakerveld of Amsterdam's VU University Medical Center. "High calorific foods are less expensive so they buy more, rather than buying more healthy foods."

The rate of obesity has doubled over the past 20 years in many European countries, according to a report released Friday by the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. That means 52 percent of the European Union's population is now classified as overweight or obese.

The report's authors say it's too soon to make a direct link between the intensification of the economy crisis over the past two years and the growth of obesity and health risks, but they warn the increasing poverty, stress and unemployment carry clear risks.

"There is no cause for complacency — it takes time for poor social conditions or poor quality care to take its toll from people’s health," wrote OECD Deputy Director Yves Leterme and Paola Testori Coggi, head of the EC's health department, in the report's introduction.

Thanks to their healthy Mediterranean diets, the southern European countries worst hit by the economic crisis have some of the continent's lowest obesity rates. Italy's 10 percent obesity level compares to 26 percent in Britain or 28 percent in European record-holder Hungary, according to the report, which was based on data from 2010.

However, the number of obese southerners is growing fast and most ominously, the trend among the young is grim. With 21 percent, Greece has the EU's highest rate of overweight 15-year-olds. Portugal and Italy at 17 percent and Spain at 16 percent also have some of the EU's highest rates of overweight teens.

Experts in the southern countries say the economic crisis is making an already bad situation worse, as shrinking incomes are leading more and more families to switch to cut-price convenience foods.

"More than 80 percent of the people with obesity in our country are unemployed and in many cases they can only afford to buy fast-food type products," says Carlos de Oliveira, president of Portugal's Obesity and Ex-Obesity Sufferers Association.

"With this crisis and the ensuing shortage of money, consumption of these products will grow and obesity will shoot up, along with the illnesses related with it," he wrote on the group's website.

Some are seeking to promote healthier alternatives. Roberto Burdese, president of Italy's Slow Food movement, noted that the organization that promotes regional food specialities welcomed a number of visitors to its annual Salone del Gusto festival held in Turin last month.

He says the crisis could lead to consumers in Italy and beyond turning back to local food to get quality produce at a reasonable price and supporting domestic economies.

"It's time to focus on agriculture and food. If we make good use of the resources we Italians have in those areas, we will overcome the economic crisis by launching a consumer revolution," Burdese told Italian media recently.

Lakerveld agrees that governments could encourage citizens to buy local fresh products and even to grow their own food. "There can also be some opportunities here," he said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam.

However, amid concern the crisis is leading some to eat the wrong food, others are struggling to find any food at all.

Organizations running soup kitchens in Greece, Spain and Portugal complain they are struggling to cope with demand.

The charity Caritas in Spain says demand for its services doubled between 2007 and 2011, with 400,000 asking for food aid. Spain's statistics agency reports there are 1.7 million homes where all working-age family members are unemployed, an increase of 312,000 from last year.

Jose Antonio Busto, president of the Spanish Federation of Food Banks, last week warned that demands by some EU governments to slash support for soup kitchens as part of cuts to the EU's budget from 2014 could leave a million Spaniards without any support.

The European Federation of Food Banks says its members last year distributed 401,000 tons of food to a total of 5.2 billion people around the EU.

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