06/21/2013 12:43 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2013

Morocco's Disappearing Mediterranean Diet

By now the alarm has been sounded throughout society: Our standard American diet (S.A.D.) is making us sick. Only a day after actor James Gandolfini's death of a heart attack at age 51, the media is already commenting on the lifestyle factors that may have put him at risk. Our tendency at such moments is often to look longingly at other cultures with healthier diets, to see what they might be doing right.

Anyone who has ever eaten a Moroccan meal will recall tables laden with colorful salads: carrots seasoned with paprika and cumin, orange slices and onions steeped in rose water. A long-simmered tagine of meat and vegetables is placed at the center, with homemade bread for dipping. The main lunchtime meal (ideally followed by a siesta) is capped off with seasonal fruit. At this time of year, stalls at the local markets are overflowing with honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon.

In 2010, UNESCO recognized the Mediterranean diet -- characterized by the uses of olive oil, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and a moderate amount of meat or fish -- as part of Morocco's cultural heritage. In numerous studies, the Mediterranean diet has been found to promote longevity and excellent health. Yet this diet is not simply a list of ingredients. As UNESCO reports, the Mediterranean diet is also social. It involves living in a society that supports social interactions: communal meals, slow food, and a respect for the earth and biodiversity.

As an anthropologist, I've witnessed the enormous amount of time and labor (usually female) that goes into pulling off a Moroccan feast. But over the past 20 years, things have changed. Many employees and students, compelled to follow a schedule modeled after the EU, no longer take a long lunch break. Enter fast food culture -- a deep-fried potato sandwich purchased on the street can cost as little as 50 cents. An after-school snack for many children involves not a piece of fruit but a bag of chips or cookies from the neighborhood grocer. Supermarkets have sprung up everywhere, and many local markets have disappeared. While on my first visit to Morocco, there were only two McDonald's restaurants in the whole country, now there are somewhere near 30.

Throughout all social classes, the Moroccan diet is changing. Like many developing countries, Morocco is experiencing a "nutrition transition" -- a shift from a Mediterranean diet to one that is heavy in sugar, refined flour, and fat. Recent studies have found that 65-67 percent of women's diets are made up of carbohydrates, and more than half of all women in Morocco are categorized as overweight or obese, a rate that has tripled in the last 20 years. These changes are common as countries become more integrated in the global economy. In emerging markets, increased investment, participation in the global food trade, and marketing have dramatic effects on everyday diets. Even in very small Moroccan towns, people now have access to energy-dense but nutrient-deficient packaged foods.

Traditional Moroccan lunches are still a feature in many households. Yet most diets hardly represent a textbook case of the Mediterranean diet. In interviews that my Rollins College students conducted this summer with a group of 25 university students in the city of Fes, many of us were struck by their responses. They loved their grandmothers' cooking the best. Most of them did not know how to cook. And for most, a fast food lunch had become a normal experience of their busy school days.

There is not an easy way to change this. No one should expect Morocco to remain outside the global economy. But as many people around the world are beginning to realize the detrimental effects of a standard Western diet, an effort should be made to hold on to traditional foodways as much as possible. Because once those Moroccan grandmothers are gone, a deep repository of cultural knowledge goes with them.

For more by Rachel Newcomb, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.