By: By Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, Contributing Writer
Published: 06/26/2014 02:10 PM EDT on LiveScience
Children who follow the so-called Mediterranean diet may be less likely to be overweight or obese than kids who do not adhere to this diet, a new study suggests.
In the study, researchers looked at children ages 2 to 9 in eight European countries, and found that those who were on a Mediterranean diet were 15 percent less likely to be overweight or obese than those who didn't. The link held regardless of where the kids lived, the researchers said.
Interestingly, the children who were most likely to follow the diet closely — with a high intake of vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish and cereal grains — were those in Sweden, and the least likely were the children in Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean.
"The fact that the Swedish children scored the highest, while the children from Cyprus turned out to have the lowest adherence to a Mediterranean diet was actually a bit surprising," study author Gianluca Tognon at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, told Live Science. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]
The researchers used data from a large study of the health effects of children's diets that was conducted between September 2006 and February 2012. The goal of the study was to assess the problem of obesity in European children.
The investigators focused on the measurements of weight, height, waist circumference and body fat percentage in about 9,000 children in Sweden, Germany, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Belgium, Estonia and Hungary.
Previous research among adults has found an association between those who follow the Mediterranean diet and a decreased risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease.
"We wanted to know more about if children adhere to a Mediterranean-like diet, and if this pattern could protect [them] from obesity," Tognon said.
The mechanism that may link the Mediterranean diet with a lower risk of being overweight or obese is not completely clear, he said. However, the high fiber content of the foods typically found in the Mediterranean diet may be helpful in lowering the risk of being obese and overweight, he said.
Tognon recommended that, besides getting their kids to eat fruits and vegetables, parents should "encourage a higher consumption of nuts, legumes, fish and whole-grain cereals, which are also not so popular among children."
The results also showed that among the children in the study, those in Italy had the lowest intake of vegetables. But Tognon, who is Italian, said this did not surprise him, because when he was working in Italy, he had already seen data that pointed to similar tendencies.
"We have constantly been told that our food and diet [in Italy] are both tasty and healthy, but I think that it is time for a wake-up call for both the population and the health authorities in south Europe, before this kind of dietary pattern will stop being called 'Mediterranean,'" he said.
Tognon presented the findings in May at the European Congress on Obesity meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria.