very Friday night, Naples teens line up at McDonald’s restaurants as if they’re hot nightclubs. Dozens socialize over burgers and fries on the curb outside the American fast food joint in the city’s Piazza Municipio while dozens more cram inside.
I couldn’t understand it at first. Like many Americans nowadays, I tend to avoid fast food chains like McDonald’s, both for health reasons and out of a wish to support local restaurants. On top of that, I’m just not a huge fan of the food served there, high fat content aside.
But I’ve come to realize it’s not so much the food at McDonald’s that draws Italian teenagers, or the lure of low prices (McDonald’s restaurants — there are more than 400 outlets in Italy — sell many items for €1, similar to the chain’s $1 menu in the United States). It’s the image of Americana they represent, and Italian children’s desire to be a part of it.
The memory of all those teenagers’ scooters parked outside McDonald’s came back to me this week as I heard the obesity statistics quoted by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition in Milan. According to the center, Italian children have the second highest rate of obesity among Western nations, ranked just behind the United States. The center’s research says that 31.6 percent of Italian children are overweight or obese, compared to 35.5 percent of American children.
It’s not exactly a new revelation, as several recent reports have noted that Italian obesity is on the rise. But the statistics got me thinking about what factors may be contributing to the Italian problem, and whether it could have something to do with U.S. cultural influence.
In America we’re told to look to the Mediterranean for healthier alternatives to our traditional saturated fat-laden diet. We’re told to use olive oil, like the Italians, and to eat more fruits, beans, vegetables and fish. We’re advised to sit down and savor our meals.
But what happens when Italian youth renounce family-taught principles in favor of American fast food culture? Could that be why they are now within four percentage points of becoming as overweight as children in the United States?
The picture is different for Italian adults. According to the Barilla Center report, 45 percent of Italian adults are overweight, with 10 percent of the population qualifying as obese. Those numbers are far below the rates in the United States, where 68 percent of adults are overweight and 34 percent are obese.
Perhaps not coincidentally, adults aren’t the ones spilling out of McDonald’s restaurants in Naples. Children and teens are.
Invariably, the most popular pizza choice among children in Naples seems to be patatine e wurstel, or pizza with French fries and hotdogs on top. If an Italian adult has ever ordered this dish in my presence, I can’t recall it.
What’s more, Italian children routinely quiz me about the wonders of American food, a conversation that makes my heart sink.
“I love pancakes,” an eight-year-old boy told me on a water taxi headed into Venice. “Burgers and pancakes.” For an hour, the boy asked about the joys of eating hamburgers, French fries and pancakes every day. When I tried telling him I thought Italian food was generally of higher quality, he shook his head and told me simply, “No.”
Clearly, part of the problem is a misunderstanding of what the American diet contains: while hamburgers and hotdogs are certainly iconic American creations, many Americans (like myself) will go months without eating one.
Articulating the nuances of American cuisine is difficult, however. When the mother of the Venice eight-year-old asked me what kinds of dishes we actually eat in America, I had trouble summing it up for her. I ended up telling her that our cuisine came from a variety of cultures, ultimately creating uniquely American phenomena that included Chinese takeout and deep-dish pizza. I told her my favorite restaurants in America tended to be ones that serve Italian or Japanese food.
Yet that’s not the image of American food that makes it across the Atlantic. While some Americans may eat salmon and couscous more often than fried chicken and burgers, those items aren’t part of the American fantasy that Italian children try to emulate. Instead they flock to burger restaurants, listen to American pop music, and buy Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts for triple the U.S. price.
Italian researchers say the issue of childhood obesity is complex, and that while high fat foods (like those served at McDonald’s) are part of the problem, so are increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the availability of junk food from school vending machines. They say the government can help by teaching students about healthy eating in school and spearheading awareness campaigns.
Maybe. But as American music tops the Italian charts and T-shirts espouse English sayings more often than Italian ones, convincing Italian children that the ways of their parents are cooler than America’s will likely be an uphill battle.