An international survey recently found that more than half of the people living in the three Baltic countries consider themselves overweight. ERR's science portal Novaator asked the National Institute of Health Development (TAI) if the reality is as grim as people's perceptions and if Estonia is indeed facing an obesity epidemic.
"If we look at the results of the newly published survey Health Behavior among Estonian Adult Population, 52 percent of our grown-ups are indeed overweight," said Eha Nurk, head of TAI's Department of Surveillance and Evaluation. This number differs slightly from the 57 percent who, according to Nielsen Global Survey of Health and Wellness, consider themselves fat.
A decade ago, (only) 40 percent of adults in Estonia were overweight or obese, i.e. had a body mass index (BMI) over 30. The growing number of people who struggle with weight is the result of general lifestyle changes. "If you look at the lives we live, they've been made very comfortable," Nurk said. People drive everywhere and eat energy-rich food.
Whereas Nielsen's survey shows that people are aware of their dietary problems and know they should eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, curb sugar and fat consumption, and eat smaller portions, the high number of overweight people shows that awareness does not always translate to successful practices. People give answers they think are expected of them, that are the social norm, but do not really reflect their everyday habits, Nurk said.
Previous studies have shown that Estonians have a rather monotonous diet, eat too much energy-rich food and not enough fruit and veges.
Although there is no simple solution to the obesity epidemic, both the Nielsen report and Nurk remain optimistic about the future of Estonia, citing the fact that people clearly want to eat healthier. Estonian kindergartens and schools also put a lot of effort into educating young people about healthy eating.
However, a number of problems stand out. One is the price of healthy food. Producers have realized that well-to-do and well-informed consumers are willing to pay more for better food. However, this leaves people who are more sensitive to price with less choice. This is where the producers should take responsibility and make sure that there are healthier options also among the range of cheaper products, Nurk said, illustrating the situations with an example of fiber- and nutrient-rich rye bread costing a lot more in Estonia than white wheat bread.
Secondly, the producers should also prioritize health benefits in product development, aiming to reduce the amounts of salt, sugars and saturated fats in their products. Nurk pointed out that sweetened yogurts, curds and sausages - all staple part of Estonian diet - are some of the biggest offenders. There are an average 12 spoons of sugar in a 400-gram pot of flavored yogurt. Only physically active people can afford to consume that much, the health specialist warned.
Editor: M. Oll