School Lunches in Italy: Are Italian kids healthier than American kids?

fast food italyThis week I’m blogging about school lunches in Italy.  This is the sixth post in the series.  If you’re interested, start from the top.




Given Italy’s strong food culture and its progressive school lunch programs, it’s easy to assume that Italian kids would be healthier than American kids.  But, looking at obesity numbers, that does not appear to be the case.  The fraction of children who are overweight is close to one third in both the United States and Italy.  According to the OECD 2012 Obesity Report, 30.9% of Italian girls and 32.4% of Italian boys aged 5-17 are overweight (including obese).  In comparison, 35.9% of American girls and 35% of American boys are overweight (including obese). [1]  What percentage of these kids are obese?  I wasn’t able to find data that is easily comparable.  A 2010 CDC report states that 15.0% of American girls and 18.6% of boys aged 2-19 are obese (16.9% total), [2] while a 2012 Italian study found 10.6% of Italian 3rd graders aged 8-9 are obese. [3]

In contrast to children, obesity rates for Italian adults are far below those for American adults: about 11% of Italian adults are obese and 42% overweight (including obese) [4], while 35.9% of American adults are obese and 69.2% overweight (including obese). [5]

Looking at the numbers, I can’t help but think the U.S. had a head start in the race towards obesity and that Italy is close on our heels.  Research shows that obesity is established early in life. If a child is obese at the age of 5, it’s likely they will stay obese for the rest of their life. [6] This theory correlates with the obesity rates we currently see in Italy: Italian adults likely grew up eating more traditional cuisines and they have stayed slim in adulthood.  The current generation of children, however, were born into a different world.  What’s worrying about the results of this study, of course, is the implications it has for Italian kids who are already obese or overweight: it means they’re doomed.

What’s the deal?  Why are Italian kids so plump?  Many sources proclaim that Italy’s youth is picking up America’s bad habits: eating more processed foods and leading more sedentary lives.  They seem to be eating less of the traditional diet they are famous for and eating more and more fast food. [7] [8] [9]  Although some schools in Italy have stellar lunch programs, many Italian kids don’t eat at school.  And even if a kid eats a good lunch at school or at home, that doesn’t stop him from munching on sugary, processed snacks outside lunchtime.

Up next:  Final thoughts


[1] “OECD Obesity Update.”  Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

[2] Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity in the United States, 2009–2010. NCHS data brief, no 82. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2012.

[3] “Dati nazionali 2012 OKkio alla SALUTE 2012: Sintesi dei risultati”. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

[4] “Salute/Obeso 11% adulti, 30% 18-69enni completamente sedentario.” Il Mondo, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014

[5] “Faststats Obesity and Overweight.” CDC National Center for Health Statistics. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

[6] Kolatajan, Gina. “Obesity Is Found to Gain Its Hold in Earliest Years.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

[7] Marshall, Jeannie. “The Death of Italian Cuisine? Kids in Rome are eating just as much junk as kids in America.” Slate, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

[8] Day, Michael. “Child obesity swells as Italy forgets eating habits.” The Independent, 1 Sept. 2011. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

[9] Santos, Melissa. “The fat boys.” TheAmerican, 31 Jul. 2012. Web. Accessed on February 10, 2014.

Photo credit: Screenshot from Teaching Channel’s “How They Do It in Rome: Nutritious School Meals.”


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