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.