Although Israel is a Mediterranean country rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and nuts, not everyone is obsessed with the advantages of a Mediterranean diet. Too many Israelis reach for processed foods instead.
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"Not only is the Israeli diet not Mediterranean, it's the opposite," says Dr. Maya Rosman, a nutrition and diet specialist. "Here, Italian pasta is drenched in cream, sushi is fried, and consumption of sweet pastries is very high. Supermarkets are packed full of sweets. As globalization increases, the Mediterranean diet is disappearing."
Sigal Beltzer, a certified clinical nutritionist, says the problem lies in the temptations of a culture of abundance. And Israelis simply enjoy eating animal products.
"Israelis tend to consume saturated fat, which mainly comes from animal products," she says. "On the other hand, children eat lots of processed food – schnitzel, fries and snacks that contain trans fats."
Dov Chernichovsky is a health economics professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the chairman of the National Council for Nutritional Security at the Social Affairs Ministry. He says the tendency of Western countries – including Israel – to consume processed foods full of saturated fats and sugar has its implications. "If we ate more healthily, life expectancy here would be 90, not 82," he says.
Chernichovsky estimates that one-third of Israel's NIS 60 billion in annual health spending goes to treat risk factors stemming from an unhealthy diet. Diabetes and heart disease are all too frequent.
"Medicine has gained control over most infectious diseases, and the diseases that are killing us now are the ones that stem from a poor diet or genetics," he says. "A high incidence of disease produces a clear economic burden – sick people are less productive and more reliant on the health care system and social services."
Chernichovsky brings up a shocking paradox: Poorer people suffer more from illness and obesity, even though a Mediterranean diet is generally cheaper than a processed one. The reason is a lack of awareness, the plentiful processed food on supermarket shelves, and advertising.
"We have to increase awareness of a proper diet in the education system and encourage campaigns that promote proper nutrition," he says. "People are reaching for the wrong products out of ignorance."
Chernichovsky says the state should consider economic incentives to get people eating healthily; for example, canceling value added tax on fruit, vegetables and other healthy products such as olive oil and legumes.
A key factor that makes a Mediterranean diet healthy is its antioxidants, which are abundant in fruit and vegetables.
"Studies have shown that there are fewer cases of cancer, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's in Mediterranean countries," says Beltzer. "In these countries, there is also a tendency to eat small meals and to eat slowly, which also has health benefits."