Zorba the obese

Anthony Quinn must be in rolling his grave. He played the experience-life-in-the-moment-with-all-the-passion-you-can-muster title character in the film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzaki’s novel Zorba the Greek.

He came to personify what people on this side of the Atlantic thought about Greeks.

Back when I was a kid, if you had a Greek last name and your friends were raised on macaroni and cheese, you’d automatically get the nickname Zorba.

He ate, drank and danced with gusto. And he was fit.

A recent trip to back to the land where three of my grandparents and my mother were born was a real eye-opener. Zorba’s had a makeover. And not a very impressive one.

Yes, Greek waistlines — like those in North America — are getting noticeably bigger. And it’s happened very quickly.

According to figures released by the World Health organization, 74.6 per cent of Greeks are either overweight or obese. By far, that’s the highest rate in the European Union. Finland and Germany are closest at a little under 64 per cent.

The WHO blames the deterioration of the Greek physique on — and this isn’t rocket science — an increase in caloric intake and a decrease in activity. Greeks are eating and drinking as much — or more — as ever, but not playing nearly enough.

It’s not hard to see why. More than half the country’s population is packed into Athens where there are almost as many cars as people. The days of the stay-at-home mother — like in North America — are over as families have to work longer and harder to try to make ends meet.

Recreational facilities are tough to come by. Going for a run through the streets of Athens — a city where a piece of sidewalk is just another parking spot — is really taking your life in your hands. Only Portugal has a higher rate of pedestrian fatalities than Greece.

The traditional Mediterranean diet consists of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh fish, a little meat and a fair bit of olive oil. All are abundant year-round in Greece.

But the diet is in trouble. More Greeks are relying on fast food and processed meals from supermarkets.

It’s ironic that as more people in the west take a Mediterranean approach to their meal plans, the WHO describes the diet as "moribund" in the region where it came to be.

The Athens Daily News recently decried the state of the diet, saying that a traditional way of life was at risk of disappearing.

Study after study suggests that the Mediterranean diet leads to a longer life, protects against chronic diseases, and can add years to your life even after a heart attack.

Couple the decline of the Mediterranean diet with a stubborn refusal to give up a national nicotine habit, and you’ve got a health basket case. The Greek government banned smoking in places like hospitals, pharmacies, airports, trains and buses back in 2002. The legislation, which was aimed at bringing Greece in line with EU smoking restrictions, was also supposed to force owners of restaurants and cafeterias to designate 50 per cent of their establishments as non-smoking. It was largely ignored.

Last May, the government announced yet another ban that is supposed to be phased in by 2010.

Somebody please tell the waiter at Thannasis souvlaki restaurant outside Monastiraki flea market in Athens. When somebody asked him for a seat in the non-smoking section, he said, "No problem."

He took the ashtray off the table.