Impact of Nordic and Mediterranean diet policies ‘not well defined’ – WHO/Europe

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock
Picture: iStock
WHO/Europe has found 15 countries in the region recommend or implement policies based on the Nordic and Mediterranean diets.

However, most of them do not monitor and evaluate the impact of such programmes and policies on non-communicable disease (NCD) outcomes.

Of the 15 countries with policies, programmes and interventions, 13 had dietary guidelines based on the Nordic or Mediterranean diet.

Support policy decisions

The European office of the World Health Organization (WHO) said the report​ will support informed decisions on food policy.

“Despite the health benefits, there is little specific guidance on how the Mediterranean and Nordic diets can be translated into concrete food policy to reinforce healthy eating behaviours and support people in making healthier food choices​,” it said.

WHO/Europe said diet was a ‘key risk factor’ for NCDs that incur ‘huge’ health and economic costs in the region.

Research has demonstrated the health-promoting properties of the two diets including protecting against cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.

Thirteen countries have FBDG based on Nordic or Mediterranean diet

Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Malta, Norway, Spain, Sweden, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey

Countries are expanding the range of policies to promote healthy diets and considering school food standards, marketing restrictions and front-of-pack nutrition labelling.

Nutrition labels, such as the Keyhole, increase consumer ability to purchase healthier foods, as well as encouraging producers to reformulate healthier products.

Mediterranean and Nordic diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet has high intake of plant-based foods (fruit, vegetables, nuts and cereals) and olive oil; moderate intake of fish and poultry and is low in dairy (principally yoghurt and cheese), red meat, processed meats and sweets.

Social and cultural factors including shared eating practices, post-meal siestas (afternoon naps) and lengthy meal times are thought to contribute to positive health effects.

Israel recently introduced warning labels for foods high in saturated fatty acids, sodium and sugar which is consistent with Mediterranean diet recommendations to limit intake of such foods.

The Nordic diet was heavy on meat and low on vegetables but has changed with a focus on locally sourced products.

Staple components of the New Nordic diet include berries and fruits, fatty fish (herring, mackerel and salmon), lean fish, legumes, vegetables (cabbage and root vegetables) and whole grain cereals (barley, oats and rye). It uses rapeseed (canola) oil instead of olive oil.

Despite more scientific evidence on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on health, the review found more programmes/interventions/policies based on the Nordic diet.

WHO/Europe recommendations

Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden) have a collaborative approach to improve the diet, reduce production and consumption impacts on the environment and facilitate achievement of the SDGs, said the report.  

“Mediterranean basin countries could follow suit, by engaging in shared goal-setting, implementation and evaluation to improve population diets through a reinvestment and reconnection with traditional diets and practices. Investment in Mediterranean diet guidelines at the regional level that can be adapted and adopted at country level may facilitate such collaboration.”

The report found countries have developed and implemented national and local diet programmes and policies, some based on the Mediterranean diet and Nordic diet, mostly in the form of dietary guidelines.

However, the guidelines are not always translated into national programmes and interventions based on the diets and evaluations are rare to determine effectiveness on NCD outcomes.

WHO/Europe suggested translating scientific evidence into diet policy; monitoring and evaluating diet and nutrition policies with a focus on population health outcomes and sharing evaluation results within and across countries.

The agency held a 1-day symposium this week with member states from the Mediterranean and Nordic regions.

The event, organised with the Nordic Council of Ministers, looked at how governments can use diets to influence food identity and consumer demand and improve nutritional quality of the food supply.

The report and symposium contributed to implementation of the WHO European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015-2020, work of WHO/Europe on the Sustainable Development Goals and build-up to a meeting on the prevention and control of NCDs.

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