Children in Nordic countries eat more healthily than adults: Survey

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

'The big picture in diet, physical activity and overweight shows that the development is heading in the wrong direction among adults in the Nordic region,' says the report. © iStock
'The big picture in diet, physical activity and overweight shows that the development is heading in the wrong direction among adults in the Nordic region,' says the report. © iStock

Related tags Nutrition

The overall healthiness of the Nordic diet fell between 2011 and 2014, although children increased their intake of fruit and vegetables and ate less sugar, according to a recently published survey.

Researchers questioned a total of 4,949 children aged seven to 12 years and 17,775 adults aged 18-65 in the five Nordic countries - Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland – to compare diet, physical activity and overweight in the region.

As part of the Nordic Plan of Action on better health and quality of life, researchers recorded data on self-reported dietary habits and the frequency of consumption of vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grain breads and foods rich in sugar or saturated fat, and assessing the healthiness using a diet index aligned with national dietary guidelines.

The proportion of adults across all five countries who had an unhealthy diet increased from 18% to 22% between 2011 and 2014 – equivalent to around half a million people.

"The overall diet has become less healthy from 2011 to 2014 among adults in the Nordic region," ​write the report authors. "An unfavorable development was seen for the intake of fish, whole grain and foods rich in saturated fat. Only the intake of added sugar developed favourably. Among children, the overall diet did not change in the Nordic region. Still, some minor improvements of the diet have occurred, for example, increased intake of fruits and vegetables and fish as well as a decreased intake of added sugar. [However] intake of whole grain decreased."

Commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the surveys were conducted in 2011 and 2014 but the accompanying report​ was published last week.

What's in a healthy diet?

According to the Nordic Council of Ministers, a healthy diet is rich in vegetables, pulses, fruits and berries, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fish and seafood, vegetable oils and low-fat dairy products. These are associated with a lower risk of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some type of cancers, says the report.

Positive step for sugar

However, the survey revealed a worrying disparity in the diets of children from different social groups in the region overall.  For children whose parents have low levels of education, the proportion reporting eating habits considered by the food agencies to be unhealthy doubled from 12 to 2% over the two-year period, although this trend was not seen in Finland and Norway.

NFA nutritionist Anna-Karin Quetel said it was "very serious" ​that the social differences in children's eating habits seemed to be increasing. 

The results do not provide a complete picture of the eating habits but show tendencies to differences between countries and development over time.”

 ​Helene Enghardt Barbieri, assessor at Sweden’s National Food Agency, Livsmedelsverket.

A statement issued by Denmark’s National Food Institute said the decrease in intake of sugar-rich foods across the whole region was the only positive development. "However, the diet also contains less wholegrain bread and more saturated fat than previously, which pulls the diet in the wrong direction compared to the official recommendations," ​it added. 

The proportion of Swedish children who ate a lot of sugar-rich foods increased since 2011 but consumption was still one of the lowest in the Nordic region. While other Nordic countries were more effective in reducing sugar intake, intake started at a much higher level.

Meanwhile, Denmark had the lowest proportion of adults who eat fish as a main course twice a week – one of the country’s dietary recommendations – which fell from 25% to 22%.

Sweden had the highest proportion of inactive children while Finnish and Swedish adults were the most physically active and spent the least amount of time in front of TV or computer screens.

The report (in English) can be read here​.

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Social groups

Posted by Sven,

I would guess that entry into the EU has widened the social group gap. Food choice prior to 1990 was limited in the Nordic area. The entry of multi nationals combined with promotional advertising has given junk food a huge boost. Only the best educated strive to fight these effects and refuse to buy this stuff for their kids. Substantial school dinners cooked on the premises help nullify haribo and crap French child yogurts.

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Government dietary criteria not based on scientific evidence

Posted by David Brown,

According to primate obesity research, national dietary guidelines do not furnish sound dietary advice. Excerpt:

Barbara C. Hansen of the University of South Florida said calories, but not high fat, were important. “To suggest that humans and monkeys get fat because of a high-fat diet is not a good suggestion,” she said. Dr. Hansen, who has been doing research on obese monkeys for four decades, prefers animals that become naturally obese with age, just as many humans do. Fat Albert, one of her monkeys who she said was at one time the world’s heaviest rhesus, at 70 pounds, ate “nothing but an American Heart Association-recommended diet,” she said.

The American Heart Association recommends that consumers replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated oils. Another excerpt:

Over the last 50 years, general nutritional wisdom has recommended a moderate consumption of fat. We have been told to dramatically lower our consumption of saturated fats (contained in butter, lard, milk, red meat, coconut oil…) and cholesterol (found in eggs, poultry, beef…). We have also been advised to increase our intake of polyunsaturated fats (contained in soybean, sunflower, corn, cottonseed oil…) and carbohydrates (found in pasta, bread, sugar…). But fat is a complex topic and these recommendations have been debated and questioned over the past 30 years. Some experts believe that these dietary recommendations – closely followed by the US population – are the main cause behind the country's high obesity levels and the rapidly growing number of people suffering from metabolic syndrome.

American Heart Association dietary advice regarding fats has been controversial for nearly a quarter of a century. Excerpt from a December 2012 article:

Is a particular dietary recommendation harming people in the U.S.? For almost 20 years, scientists have been arguing over whether Americans and others on a typical Western diet are eating too much of omega-6s, a class of essential fatty acids. Some experts, notably ones affiliated with the American Heart Association, credit our current intake of omega-6s with lowering the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Others, which include biochemists, say the relatively high intake of omega-6 is a reason for a slew of chronic illnesses in the Western world, including asthma, various cancers, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease itself.

The problem has to do with the fatty acid profile of the food supply. Here's what happened:

We now know that major changes have taken place in the food supply over the last 100 years, when food technology and modern agriculture led to enormous production of vegetable oils high in ω-6 fatty acids, and changed animal feeds from grass to grains, thus increasing the amount of ω-6 fatty acids at the level of LA (from oils) and arachidonic acid (AA) (from meat, eggs, dairy). This led to very high amounts of ω-6 fatty acids in the food supply for the first time in the history of human beings. Traditionally, animals grazed. Grass contains ALA (ω-3), whereas grains, corn and soya (which are now fed to animals) are high in LA (ω-6). This imbalance in the amount of ω-6 and ω-3 fatty acids is a new phenomenon that was never a part of human evolution. Human beings evolved on a diet that had equal amounts of ω-6 and ω-3 fatty acids. This balanced ratio of ω-6 to ω-3 is critical to human development during pregnancy and lactation, in the prevention of chronic diseases and in their management. The typical Western diet now provides an ω-6 to ω-3 ratio of around 16:1. High dietary intake of ω-6 fatty acids as occurs today leads to increases in white adipose tissue and chronic inflammation, which are the ‘hallmarks of obesity.

This fatty acid imbalance deranges the endocannabinoid system. Last excerpt:

Endocannabinoids and their G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR) are a current research focus in the area of obesity due to the system’s role in food intake and glucose and lipid metabolism. Importantly, overweight and obese individuals often have higher circulating levels of the arachidonic acid-derived endocannabinoids anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) and an altered pattern of receptor expression. Consequently, this leads to an increase in orexigenic stimuli, changes in fatty acid synthesis, insulin sensitivity, and glucose utilisation, with preferential energy storage in adipose tissue. As endocannabinoids are products of dietary fats, modification of dietary intake may modulate their levels, with eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid based endocannabinoids being able to displace arachidonic acid from cell membranes, reducing AEA and 2-AG production.

The long and short of it is this. Fatty acids stored in cell membranes are required to make endocannabinoids which, in turn, regulate energy intake. An imbalance in essential fatty acid intake deranges the appetite regulating mechanism.

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