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The Mediterranean Diet?

Greece has among the highest rates of childhood obesity in Europe, at more than 30 percent, while the level for adults is also near the top of Europe's list — a problem considered to have emerged since the early 1990s. 

A University of Athens study of 312 fifth graders in Greece's northern Ioannina region found 29.4 and 11.8 percent of boys were overweight and obese, while the figure for girls was 39.0 and 7.5 percent. 

In their study published this month, the researchers reported that "Furthermore, body mass index and blood pressure were positively related to frequency of fast food meals ... but negatively to leisure time physical activity." 

"Things have changed in Greece," said Maria Hassapidou, secretary general of the Hellenic Medical Association for Obesity. "People have gone toward a Westernized diet." 

Greek health agencies issued the warning on World Diabetes Day. Dozens of people lined up Wednesday at Athens' central Syntagma Square to have their blood sugar levels tested and to speak with doctors at information stands. 

The Mediterranean diet, often hailed as a model for calorie-counters worldwide, has lost many of its classic features. The consumption of meat and cheese is increasing, while the Greek staples of bread, potatoes and olive oil have been vanishing from the daily diet, Hassapidou said. 

"People work less, so they need less," she said, referring to physical activity. 

The United States still leads the world in prevalence of overweight people, according to data provided by international agencies like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But many European countries are catching up. 

Some 28 percent of Greek men and 25 percent of Greek women are considered to have a weight problem and have a body-mass index of 30 or greater, according to 2005 figures from the World Health Organization. 

The respective numbers for the United States are 37 and 42 percent, according to the WHO. 

A general misunderstanding of food labels is also a contributing factor, said Dr. Michael Hourdakis, a dietitian based in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. He said an informal survey of 500 Greeks found half of them did not understand food labels or know which ingredients would affect their blood sugar levels.  "If people get interested in reading food labels ... then they would buy healthier foods," he said.  He said he hoped school programs, including talks on healthy eating by visiting athletes, could help reverse the trend among youngsters. 

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