The third happiest country in the world isn’t all that different from Canada (we’re 7th). Free post-secondary education might have something to do with their lead. They also seem to be set up to make healthier decisions than us. Read on for the observations of a traveling nutrition nerd.
Danes smoke and drink more than Canadians (as do most European countries), but they have lower obesity rates (18.2% vs. 26.2%). They ride their bikes everywhere, not quite to Amsterdam levels but pretty close! The portion sizes are smaller. They eat together and often cook from scratch. Their whole food environment is different, often making healthy choices the easy choice.
Before I boost their egos too much, their rates of obesity and chronic disease are quickly approaching ours, as western society slowly decimates every wholesome European tradition. But you know, they have McNuggets now. Soooo you're welcome Denmark!
Tour of a Danish Grocery Store
A country’s grocery stores can tell you a lot about the health of its population. American grocery stores for example, feel like a museum of preposterous food products that never should have been invented (PS. 18th happiest country).
Danish grocery stores on the other hand, often have much larger sections of fresh foods and very small frozen sections for convenience foods. Groceries are more reasonably priced than you’d expect, but convenience foods are hella expensive (8$ for a box of Betty Crocker cake mix). Here is a picture of the entire frozen entrée section at a major grocery store chain.
Organic food is also much more popular, with prices more comparable to the conventional counterparts. Since the early 90s government and industry have worked together to keep organic prices low, namely by subsidizing organic crops. Sales rose drastically.
There is also a little American section in this store, which includes: Mac’n’cheese from a box, milkshakes, Poptarts and all the processed foods many Danes won’t touch with a 10 foot pole. That being said they have their share of odd (gross) food products, like ham or fish in a tube. I think the statement 'now with 50% more ham' is supposed to be a selling point.
Another odd combo is chocolate on bread. It's kind of like putting Nutella on bread, but it's just a chunk of thin solid milk chocolate. They don't even toast it. Obviously I still liked it.
Interestingly, Denmark had a sugar tax from the 1930s until just recently. They also briefly had a fat tax, both policies many countries including Canada have considered. The lessons learned here were that it didn't reduce fat or sugar intake, it costs a ton to implement, and they lost jobs due to cross-border shopping. In other words, retailers started buying their fat and sugar from Sweden, and Denmark in no way benefited.
Eating Habits & Food Culture
Daily meals in Denmark traditionally look like this:
• Breakfast: This might be white or rye bread with cheese or jam (or both!). Otherwise whole grain cereal like muesli is common. On weekends there are likely danishes involved, but they call them Vienna Bread (weinerbrød), as Viennese chefs in Denmark created them in 1840.
• Lunch: Open faced sandwiches, topped with eggs, fish or meats. Pickled herring is a popular one. Rye bread is also big. The lunch pictured here was actually delicious, but I did feel nauseous after eating fish in the AM. Not for sensitive tummies!
• Dinner: Hot meal of the day.
Dessert: desserts are traditionally not too sweet, but plum cake is to die for. I tried to blow some minds with a North American cake (they don’t often use icing?), and I think it worked. A friend I served this edible flower cake to ended up using the recipe for her wedding!
Meals in Denmark revolve around ‘hygge’ – which basically means a cozy homey feeling. Eating with family and friends is really important, an element I hope we'll see in our new Canadian Food Guide coming this year. Meals are often made from scratch with high quality ingredients. I can safely say every fresh food item I had in Denmark was more flavourful than the same item in Canada, not sure exactly why.
I got to visit the Danish Fisheries Agency and had the employee lunch. Here is a picture of the plate I made myself from the $5CAD all you can eat buffet, featuring fish and veal.
Going out to a sit down meal with friends is popular. I was impressed by how balanced the meals were and the sensible portions. Sadly restaurants are incredibly expensive if you aren't on a Danish salary. The legend of the $10 cup of coffee is true people. If you plan on visiting Scandinavia look at cheap tricks for traveling. It helps that tipping is not customary! And don't feel bad, servers and cashiers make at least $25/hr...bastards.
Copenhagen has McDonald's, Burger King and Starbucks. I couldn't find any stats or policies about fast food there, but I did notice the lack of drive-thrus and people eating in their cars. My overall impression is that Danes are more mindful about their eating.
As I mentioned Danes are heavier drinkers than Canadians. Drinking after work with colleagues is customary. The legal age to buy beer and wine is 16, and 18 for hard liquor or to drink in a bar. Booze is sold 24/7 and drinking in public is both legal and socially acceptable.
The New Nordic Diet
You may have heard of NOMA, a Copenhagen restaurant that was rated the best in the world for years. It's about $400/person without wine, so just a taaad more expensive than the average Scandinavian meal.
This 3 Michelin star restaurant earned its spot on the map by developing its own cuisine 'New Nordic'. Scandinavian chefs worked together to develop dishes that were local, healthy, delicious and beautiful. Obviously it was a hit.
From this came the 'New Nordic Diet'. All the same concepts but adapted for simple homemade meals. The main concepts of the diet focus on health and environmental impacts:
- Eat Local animal products, fish and seafood, berries, potatoes, red cabbage, mushrooms, cucumbers, etc.
- Eat less meat and more vegetables, nuts & seeds
- Eat fatty fish
- Eat together with friends and family
- Exercise more
It doesn’t count calories or servings. They are general lifestyle changes. Which in my opinion is the most realistic way to see lasting health benefits. Not only that but I think it helps your mental health to know you're respecting the planet and future generations.
The University of Copenhagen has been studying the health effects of the diet, and so far it looks promising. Research has shown exactly what you'd expect from a diet full of whole foods and little meat. Weight loss, improved blood pressure, and reduced triglycerides (fat in the blood). While it tastes delicious it can be hard to follow because of the cost and food prep needed for fresh meals.
The country is smaller than Nova Scotia but they use 60% of their land for agriculture. Obviously the concept of local is a little more complicated in a country the size of Canada. The basic concepts of this diet can still be adapted to any region, and you can start right now! The only difference is what's in season in your area. It's slim pickins in Ontario for the winter, but spring is right around the corner. Follow the example of our Danish friends and make a meal with ingredients from your own backyard.
What's in season: https://www.ontario.ca/foodland/page/availability-guide