According to the results of a recent study, one fifth of adults in Estonia are obese, ranking the country third in the EU behind Malta and Latvia. Obesity has surpassed alcohol as a health risk in Estonia.
Apparel manufacturers have been able to precisely track size increases on the Estonian market. While the country's men have been slowly but steadily gaining weight for years already, Estonia's Baltika noticed a couple of years ago that women have begun to increase in size as well, reported ETV news program "Aktuaalne kaamera: Nädal."
"This change has been so sudden in recent times that we ceased production of size 32 this spring, and will be adding sizes 46 and 48 to Monton instead," said Kaie Kaas-Ojavere, Baltika's head of collections for Monton. "These sizes have sold quickly in the past two years. This indicates that demand on the market is higher than we have been able to meet."
Estonia's high ranking in the obesity index comes as no surprise to experts, however, as studies have shown the same for quite some time already.
"Our increase in overweight and obesity began later than in many other European countries, but we have caught up to them quickly," explained Haidi Kanamäe, head of nutrition and exercise at the National Institute for Health Development (TAI).
While weights began to increase in the West in the 1980s, Estonia's average weight began to steadily increase around 2000-2002.
"Food options expanded and accessibility improved, and with it, people's eating habits changed — these were the initial reasons," Kanamäe said.
Currently, 40 percent of men and one in five women in Estonia are overweight or obese, and the number of obese men has doubled since 1996.
While several factors are involved in obesity, according to the TAI expert, the biggest problem is sweets, as well as meat, which people consume 2-3 times more than reasonable. People also tend to consume excess soft drinks and salty snacks.
"And so you end up with very little room for those food groups which should account for the majority of our menu, i.e. fruits and vegetables and grains, particularly whole grains," Kanamäe added.
Food now biggest health risk
According to family doctor Diana Ingerainen, obesity in Estonia has reached epidemic levels. Four years ago, health issues caused by obesity outstripped health issues caused by alcohol.
"While society as a whole acknowledges the fact that alcohol is a risk, then overweight as a risk or nutrition as a risk is not acknowledged," Ingerainen said.
She believes that neither society or doctors themselves know right now how to make clear to people what they can do for the sake of their own health, as doctors are trained to treat specific illnesses, and patients in turn expect specific treatment from their doctors, not recommendations to eat less and exercise more.
"People try to find something interesting and exciting, but maybe it's difficult for people to believe in tedious changes," Ingerainen said. "If you exercise, then you essentially have to do so constantly, because one round of exercise only benefits you for 72 hours. Nutrition should be monitored on a daily basis as well."
She finds that people often don't realize that obesity is a disease, and that it is not taken seriously. Yet overweight and obesity are risk factors for many diseases.
"People might know more about diabetes, perhaps, but also all those joint pains, many malignant tumors — obesity isn't just a buzzword," the doctor said. "This really does need to be addressed, and it can be seen already that it impacts the entire population's health indicators."
Situation most critical among children
While adults are gaining weight gradually, the situation is currently most critical among Estonia's children. Within a span of a couple of decades, the number of overweight children has tripled. Sharp increases in weight are also already beginning in kindergarten, not in adolescence as previously, with 10- to 13-year-olds also seeing rapid increases in weight.
"There is one positive aspect when it comes to kids — their parents are usually motivated to address this issue," Ingerainen highlighted. "This is one group that we should be increasingly dealing with. The next is men, who start becoming overweight before 30 and later just continue to grow."
Most European countries are facing an obesity epidemic and trying to put a stop to it, but even upon some reflection, Kanamäe couldn't think of any success stories to cite. She does not believe, however, that the fight against obesity is a hopeless one.
"In that regard, we are in a better position as we at least have free school lunches for children, and three meals per day in kindergarten — that is very important," she said. "But both we and other countries have a long way to go when it comes to raising awareness."
All kinds of diets may provide short-term results, but according to Kanamäe, it is important for people to learn the basics of nutrition and change their own diets accordingly.
"That they make changes that would be long-term and that they'd be capable of following a year, five years or ten years from now," she added.
Ingerainen believes that sugar content in food products should definitely be reduced, just as salt content was reduced in prepackaged soups.
"Personally, I would take all sweetened beverages off the market," she said. "I have argued a great deal with the Estonian Food Industry Association, for example, over people's right to choose, but if it's not visibly for sale, then people aren't going to choose it."
The doctor added that she believes that it is possible to rein in the obesity epidemic in Estonia, noting that Finland managed to do the same in North Karelia.
Editor: Aili Vahtla