Cultural shift seen behind Italian women's thinning

Gone are the "Big Mamma" stereotypes and the full figures of yesteryear - a new study on Friday has found Italian women are the only ones getting thinner despite an obesity epidemic in the Western world.

And experts told AFP it's all thanks to major cultural changes in Italy, a healthy Mediterranean diet and simply paying more attention to waistlines.

The ideal of beauty is "very different from the post-war period if you look at photos of actresses from the 1950s" like Sofia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, said Maria Rosaria D'Isanto, a nutritional expert in Treviso in northern Italy.

A global study published in British medical journal The Lancet backs her up, finding that the Body Mass Index (BMI) for Italian women has fallen from 25.2 in 1980 to 24.9 in 1990 and 24.8 in 2008, bucking the trend seen elsewhere.

In Britain, the average BMI for women has risen from 24.2 in 1980, to 25.2 in 1990, 26.2 in 2000 and 26.9 in 2008. For US women the increase in BMI has been even more stark - from 25.0 in 1980 to 28.3 in 2008.

D'Isanto said Italian women are just more informed about weight issues.

"The level of education has risen and with that so has the consciousness of the correlation between excessive weight and health. We have a new generation that is not the 'fat is beautiful' one," she said.

Another important factor was "the re-evaluation during the 1980s of the Mediterranean diet" based on olive oil and rich in fibres, she added.

In France "the cuisine is rich in fats with cheese or butter but in Italy it's olive oil. We are more conscious of what constitutes fat," she said.

Public health campaigns in schools over the past 30 years have given a helping hand and Italian women are now doing more exercise than ever before.

And last but not least parents are becoming "very careful about food" compared to grandparents, who think of "plentiful eating as a sign of wealth."

Pietro Migliaccio, head of the Italian Society of Food Sciences, says he now can't tell the difference between a 30-year-old and a 45-year-old or between a 40-year-old and a 65-year-old in the streets of Rome or Milan.

"If you look at Scandinavian, German or Ukrainian women, they're magnificent when they're 18-20 years old but after that they let themselves go and by the time they're 35 they're already flabby," Migliaccio said.

"It's not just that they're going to the hairdresser more. Italian women are among the most elegant in Europe and they care more about their waistlines than other women," he said - "even when they are overweight or obese."

Last but not least, Migliaccio said the BMI is going down because Italians as a whole are getting taller "and can now have basketball or volleyball teams" - with average heights rising some 10 centimetres in the past 100 years.

Why?: "A better diet, a healthier lifestyle and more happiness."

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