If you take a walk down any Danish street and pay attention to the people you pass, one of the first things you will notice is the amount of blondes there are here. It’s a Scandinavian thing. The second thing you will probably notice is the obvious lack of fat people.
I’m from Australia, where obesity is an ever increasing problem. Everywhere you look you see people struggling with that ‘spare tyre’. Now I can only account for what I have seen with my own eyes, but in Denmark its easy to tell the Danes don’t have the same problem.
Just a quick Google search showed me some interesting numbers about obesity rates around the world. A study I found by Nationmaster.com shows the US sitting at the top with a whopping 31% of the population as obese. Australia wasn’t faring to well either, with fat people accounting for over 20%. This contrasts with Denmark, which although wasn’t at the bottom, it was only a mere 9-10%.
I find these numbers hard to explain. Obviously it would be a gross oversimplification for me to try to provide in depth insight into something which has so many factors, but there are some interesting pointers.
Firstly in the western world we tend to be bombarded with government advertising warning us about the dangers of an unhealthy diet. Basically bad food= weight gain. But I have to say Danish food is full of fat. A simple Danish dish called flæskesteg (roasted pork) is encouraged to have that big layer of fat, perfect for juicy crackling which tastes great!
Also the size of the ice-creams in Denmark is ridiculous. In Australia I usually order one or two scoops. But here in Viking land, an ice-cream I have found called Gammeldags (old days), is three scoops, plus soft-ice, topped with guf (like whisked eggs and sugar), strawberry sauce and chocolate sticks. It’s not uncommon on a summer day to see Danes eating an ice-cream with at least a weeks worth of calories.
Then there is the beer drinking which I have written about previously. Danes drink a lot. The giant Danish brewer Carlsberg is the world fourth largest producer and although a lot is exported, the local demand is high. Beer is high in fat and come rain, hail or shine if you’re in Denmark, you drink beer.
So how come the Danes can stay in shape? It can’t be because of a healthy diet.
An OECD study points out the societal implications of urban sprawl and I think that this could be crucial in explaining the lack of fat people in Denmark- exercise. Danish cities are smaller and easier to get around by walking or by bike. The high taxes imposed on cars and petrol make it impossible for most students to own a car. Everybody in Denmark gets around on a bike, the country is quite famous for it, probably second only behind the Netherlands in terms of the number of bikes you see in the streets.
Going by bike is just part of the culture here. Every street has bike lanes so you don’t have to risk death when you hit the pedals. Bikes are cheap and easy to find. You can even rent a bike from certain points in the city, just put in 20 kroner and off you go.
An article I found on Denmark.dk about the Danish bike culture said cycling was one of the most important habits for health and mortality rates were significantly lower for those who rode bikes regularly.
“In towns especially, millions of kroner were invested in creating better conditions for cycling, and today it is widely acknowledged that bicycles are not only environmentally friendly, but also help keep down body weight and strengthen public health. About 9 per cent of women in Denmark are severely obese, while for women in the UK it is 23 per cent.”
These facts seem hard to argue with when it comes to figuring out why the Danes have less obesity problems than other OECD nations. The problem I have is public health campaigns always stress the importance of a healthy diet, but no real pressure is applied to exercise. Television advertising can only go so far as to get kids off the couch and doing some proper physical exercise.
People do drive in Denmark, but not the same way we do in Australia. I’ve driven two minutes to the shops, because riding just isn’t part of our culture. Maybe this could be an explanation as to why the Danes are in better shape than most of us. It’s a simple argument but I believe with more focus from our governments on not only encouraging exercise, but with better planning of cities to make them bike and pedestrian friendly, we can cut into that obesity rate.