More adults in the Nordic region have an unhealthy diet. This is one of the key findings of the second Nordic monitoring of diet, physical activity and overweight headed by the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. While Nordic children are better than adults at eating according to the official recommendations, social inequality related to diet has increased significantly among children.
The National Food Institute in cooperation with researchers from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have conducted the second Nordic monitoring of diet, physical activity and overweight for the Nordic Council of Ministers. Data from the Nordic Monitoring System make it possible to see how public health has developed in a number of areas between 2011 and 2014.
In order to assess whether people in the Nordic region have a healthy or an unhealthy diet, researchers have calculated a dietary quality score based on the participants’ self-reported intake of fruit and vegetables, fish, whole-grain bread and foods rich in saturated fats or added sugar.
Adults eat less sugar
The proportion of adults with an unhealthy diet has increased from 18% in 2011 to 22% in 2014. This equals an additional 500,000 people in the Nordic region who eat an unhealthy diet. More men than women have an unhealthy diet (25% vs 18%), and the highest proportion with an unhealthy diet is found among the 25-44-year-olds.
Among adults in the Nordic region, the only positive development overall in relation to diet is a decrease in the intake of sugar-rich foods. However, the diet also contains less whole grain bread and more saturated fat than previously, which pulls the diet in the wrong direction compared to the official recommendations.
Denmark has the lowest proportion of adults who fulfil the recommendation of eating fish as a main course twice a week, and it has declined from 2011 to 2014 (from 25% to 22%).
Increasing social inequality in children's diets
During the survey period one in seven children in the Nordic region have an unhealthy diet. However, social inequality among children has increased significantly. This is due to a doubling from 2011 to 2014 in the proportion of children with a low educated parent who have an unhealthy diet (from 12% to 25%), while there are fewer children with a high educated parent who eat unhealthy (from 14% to 11%).
"The data suggests that it will be difficult for the Nordic region as a whole to fulfil the Nordic visions relating to children’s as well as adults' diet - with the exception of the target of eating less added sugar"
In order to reduce social inequality, it is important to improve the dietary habits among children of low educated parents, given that the diet among this group is developing in the wrong direction. It is also a goal in the Nordic Plan of Action to reduce social inequality," Senior Adviser Sisse Fagt from the National Food Institute says.
Difficult to reach some of the Nordic visions for health
In the ‘Nordic Plan of Action on better health and quality of life through diet and physical activity’ the Nordic Council of Ministers has set out a number of visions for the diet in the Nordic region in 2021. They relate to the intake of fruit and vegetables, whole-grains, fish, added sugar and saturated fat as well as social inequality in diet.
"The data suggests that it will be difficult for the Nordic region as a whole to fulfil the Nordic visions relating to children’s as well as adults' diet - with the exception of the target of eating less added sugar," Sisse Fagt concludes.
The study results are described in more detail in the report on the National Food Institute’s website: The Nordic Monitoring System 2011-2014 (pdf). Some of the results have been presented at Nordic conferences in 2016, but the report presents the overall results for the first time.
It is the second Nordic monitoring to be carried out, which makes it possible to compare diet, physical activity and overweight in the Nordic region and between the five Nordic countries over time. The National Food Institute has been responsible for conducting the Nordic monitoring both times.
- The Nordic Monitoring System on diet, physical activity and overweight has been conducted in 2011 and 2014 in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In the two studies data have been collected among 4,949 children aged 7-12 and 17,775 adults aged 18-65 in the Nordic region.
- The study is based on a simple random sample of adults and children drawn from the national register in each of the five Nordic countries. Data were obtained by telephone interviews. Participants have been asked how often they eat selected foods, how much time they spend on physical activity and recreational screen time, their level of education as well as their height and weight. In 2014 adult participants have also been asked how often they smoke and drink alcohol.
- The studies show how public health has developed in the Nordic region in a number of areas between 2011 and 2014. The results are being used to evaluate status and development in the Nordic region and in each of the five Nordic countries in relation to the Nordic Plan of Action on better health and quality of life through diet and physical activity from the Nordic Council of Ministers .
- The Nordic Monitoring System is the only Nordic population study, which collects comprehensive, comparative data on the health behaviour of children as well as adults over time.
- It costs approximately 35 euros per person to collect the data and is thereby a cost-effective way of collecting large amounts of data on public health in the Nordic region.