I have been on an epic adventure sailing the Baltic. My trip included the Isle of Man, Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Germany and Holland. Over the next few weeks I am going to report on my findings in terms of food and activity. My sail unexpectedly ended in Brixham, Devon last week due to early UK gale force winds. Sometime soon I hope we can set off for Caernarvon via Cornwall and Lands End, weather permitting.
Healthy by Design: Sweden
A study which tracks 35 industrialised nations across the globe found that Sweden is the 6th best in terms of obesity rates, whereas the UK is the 6th worst (OECD Obesity Update 2017 https://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/Obesity-Update-2017.pdf). What might contribute to this difference? In this post, I look at Sweden where the food focus is on local, healthy, freshness and taste, and opportunity for activity is in abundance. Locations visited included Stockholm, Kalmar, Gotland, Gotska Sandon, Kristianopel and the Swedish Archipelago.
So, we are all familiar with IKEA and the simplicity and beauty of Swedish design (along with meatballs!) but how is design and culture embraced in the food and activity environment?
You would think everyone would be a little more rounded with the endless supply of bakeries, or bageri as they are known, and traditional fika which is a rendezvous for coffee and cake or pastry that has been in Swedish culture since the 18th century, but not so. A feast for the eyes of sourdoughs and sesame breads, cinnamon buns and many beautifully presented pastries with local blueberries and raspberries, small tarts packed with seeds and nuts of every description.
Absent, however, are heavy doses of cream and chocolate buns coated with endless nibs of crystallised sugar, cupcakes piled high with swirls of buttercream, jam doughnuts and pasties with thick crusts of flaky pastry. Swedish pastries with icing sported a small circular amount not the vast sticky dribbling amounts like here in the UK. No big A boards parked on the pavement offering 2 for 1, or buy 2 and get the 3rd one free. An absence of advertising of burgers, pizzas and anything typically energy dense.
In terms of behavioural science one reason people are healthier here than in other EU countries is because portion sizes are smaller, ok let me correct that, let’s say ‘normal size’ compared to what we see in the UK and elsewhere. When shopping at supermarkets I noticed there is certainly less processed food available including less low-fat, sugar/fat free alternatives. In addition, from sauces to bread, from yoghurts to assembled dishes, my taste buds recognised one key missing element; foods just simply contained less sugar.
Eating out the offer is predominantly fresh local fish and vegetable-based dishes, always accompanied by lots more vegetables; especially cabbage, carrots and green beans. There was a distinct absence of chips, sometimes dishes were accompanied by a small amount of fried cubed potatoes. I tried the fresh Swedish meatballs which were delicious, and not fatty at all, again the serving was smaller at around 4 in a portion. The default accompaniment was vegetables and a small side of sauce, with unlimited water and salad always being available. It was the cultural norm to drink water and have salad with meals.
With alcohol at premium prices, and alcoholic beverages containing more than 3.5% alcohol by volume only available at Systembolaget (the government owned liquor stores which incidentally closes at 6pm every night) we did not drink much. Systembolaget exists only for one reason: to minimise alcohol related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way without a profit motive, creating a society where everyone can enjoy alcoholic drinks with consideration to health without harming either themselves or other people.
The second obvious reason for better health is activity. There were well used and clearly defined cycling and walking routes, with both activities being the norm. There is a clear cycling infrastructure including electric bike pumps dotted about, and importantly considerate drivers, probably because they are also cyclists. Most Swedes wear a helmet or a Hövding (an airbag cycle helmet worn around the neck that inflates over your head in the event of an accident). You can get fined 1500 Kronor (about £124) if you jump a red light on your bike. Informal bike parking; you can leave your bike anywhere as long as it is not in the way. No cycling in pedestrian areas, on sidewalks or pedestrian crossings, and if there is no bike path you must cycle on the correct side of the road. All bikes must have a bell, reflectors, lights and brakes and you cannot cycle whilst drunk.
In contrast, back in Blighty walking from the station to the marina for the Southampton boat show (as most people waited for the bus!) on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, I was not passed by a single cyclist despite the obvious cycle route, which incidentally pedestrians were walking in! Say no more.
The key learning points from Sweden:
· Everything in moderation from energy dense foods to alcohol, and reduced consumption of processed foods with longer shelf life and low nutrients.
· Freshness and taste is key, local produce, more fish and vegetable dishes and less meats.
· Portion control an absolute must.
· Great food presentation.
· Vegetables served as the norm, less starchy food like fried potatoes, and free salad.
· Free water!
· Less energy dense food promotion.
· Opportunity to engage in physical activity safely.
So, the questions raised in my mind are: is processed food having a negative impact on our health? If it says sugar/fat free, or products replaced with artificial sugars/fats, are we just eating more of it and expanding our stomachs? When we come to eat foods without this processing i.e. normal fats and sugar, do we end up eating far too much to fill our expanded stomach.
It’s clear in Southampton as a case in point, just providing cycle routes in the UK is not enough to make people use them. I am guessing the reasons are two-fold: infrastructure (whilst improving) and the attitude of UK drivers to cyclists are key in this, because it’s certainly not the weather.
You can find out more about how to apply behavioural science on our website tasteadventures.org or if you are a food business and are thinking about how you can help your customers eat more healthily check out our book on our website, soon to be available in hardcopy.
Next up St Petersburg, Russia.