Tackling the UK's obesity problem Dutch style

Tackling the UK's obesity problem Dutch style

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The British recently emerged as the second largest purchasers of diet products within Europe, behind the Netherlands. In her article, Virginia Griffith explores why the Dutch are leaner than the British.

Britain has now been sited as 'the fattest country in Europe' with over half of its population reported as overweight or obese, consequently ranking a mere 1 percent behind that of America. The future statistics do not bode well either with a prediction that in the next 10 years 78 percent of the British population will be overweight.  Yet ironically our obsessive attitude to, and emphasis on, losing weight is far greater now than ever.

Furthermore the means to beat the flab is vast and varied; from customised gyms and exercise gadgets for use in the home, to new diet fads and ample assortments of slimming products. In fact the fat phenomenon is rapidly gaining momentum not only in the West, but throughout the developing world, and yet it would appear for certain countries this is occurring at a much faster rate compared to others.

The Netherlands has also witnessed an increase in the number of people pronounced as overweight or obese, around 30 percent, double that of 20 years ago. Nevertheless in recent years these figures have stayed constant with little or no influx. According to the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) the Dutch  lead healthier lives with declining numbers of smokers and heavy drinkers, together with being reported as taking more regular exercise. What is consistent however in both Britain and in Holland is the high percentage of overweight men compared to that of women – 40 percent to 30 percent.

fish and chipsSo why are the Dutch so successful compared to the British when warding off the bulge? Why are the British consuming more calories then any other country in Europe? It could simply be as a direct result to the accessibility and wide variety of junk food available.  Although of course most moderately large towns across Europe boasts at least one major burger chain, the UK unlike Holland possesses a mammoth amount. High streets are inundated with eateries, the majority being American, all offering high calorific food to go.

Yet the Dutch equivalent is hardly low on fat least healthy! Greasy Snackbars offer various deep fried foods such as frikadel (sausage), kroketten (croquettes) and patat (French fries) often smothered in mayonnaise or sate sauce. Moreover their interpretation of fast food is taken Frikadel specialliterally; rows of single portion snacks are coin dispensed and obtained through self service. And for a dessert why not order an olieboll a kind of fat sodden, doughy ball.

What is distinctly different between The Netherlands and Britain though, is the size of food portions which appeared to have increased substantially in the past few years with Britain now adopting a ‘Super Size Me’ culture. This ‘go large’ mentality is further evident in supermarkets. In The Netherlands modestly sized food stores (which more than competently serve their customers needs) are in stark contrast to the enormous food warehouses in the UK. 

In addition when paying for ones goods the British are often tempted by large displays of chocolate bars and sweets next to the cashier desk. This is juxtaposed with Holland which usually stocks a small variety of mostly non-edible products (magazines, phone credit etc) with some stores offering portions of fruit such as cherry tomatoes.

But as any weight watcher will tell you it is not consuming food alone that leads to becoming slim and healthy. Exercise is a crucial ingredient and this is in fact where culturally, these two countries are poles apart. The Dutch’s inclination to travel by bicycle (throughout the whole year) as opposed to hopping into the car for short journeys is one of many explanations as to why they are nationally fitter. In fact the Dutch indulge in many activities that aid in keeping them trim, some of which are provided for free by Mother Nature; like outdoor ice skating which the whole family is often seen participating in.

Photo by Juan Carlos (flickr)

According to 'Sport in Nederland' one in two Dutch practise sport on a weekly basis with 4.5 million of the population associated with one of the 35,000 sports clubs operating in the country. These include football, hockey and volleyball rating as the most popular team sports to tennis, gymnastics and martial arts, together with many other indigenous sports to name but a few.

In comparison, Britain unfortunately seems to be lagging way behind, with many clubs sorely underfunded and some even threatened with closure. Without the sufficient investment into community sport, the potential to improve the country’s health will be minimal and inconsequential. For many youngsters the general attitude towards sport, as a result, is often negative with passive pastimes taking preference such as watching TV and playing computer games. It would thus seem to successfully tackle this fast encroaching overweight/obesity issue, Britain has to address and potentially change its ingrained cultural behaviour.   

For the Netherlands at least, the future according to the statistics looks reasonably positive especially when equated to Britain’s figures. However, a dramatic increase in calorie consumption throughout Europe is widely evident and consequently the escalation in weight related problems have risen substantially compared to that of the past. Moreover the correlation between Europeans expanding waistlines and threat of life shortening diseases is irrefutable. 

Ultimately the repercussions of an overweight nation will inevitably mean a greater strain on health services with increased cases of heart disease, strokes and diabetes. The magnitude of nationwide weight problems therefore has serious consequences both socially and economically.   

To discuss this further in our UK forums click here.

Virginia Griffith/ Expatica

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4 Comments To This Article

  • barbara posted:

    on 13th October 2009, 02:46:03 - Reply

    Cherry tomatoes? I lived in the Netherlands for the last ten years, and never saw what you are describing. My stepsons eat like horses, go to McDonalds every weekend, and shop at the large grocery stores in Holland. BUT, they also bike. One is getting fat, so he has parked his car and biking more. The whole family circle eats potatoes, bread, more potatoes, more bread, mayonnaise on french fries, etc.
    I really don't know which country you were in, but it is not the one I lived in. I say the biking, the genes(tall and thin), and more biking, with a game of soccer thrown in.
  • niatrue posted:

    on 7th October 2009, 22:50:42 - Reply

    Afterthought: I, too, wondered which stores were "modestly sized" and "more than competently serve their customers [sic] needs." Is this an advertisement paid for by the store(s) in question or a fact-based article? How did you judge whether the stores have met their customers's needs? Survey of random selection of customers? Apples-to-apples comparison of their needs?
  • Curt posted:

    on 7th October 2009, 18:39:48 - Reply

    I'd like to know which stores you were referring to when you wrote "the Netherlands modestly sized food stores (which more than competently serve their customers needs) ". I can go to the biggest AH in Amsterdam at 2pm and the bread racks look like Russian grocery stores circa 1980. They'll introduce a product, carry it for a few weeks and it will disappear. I'd much prefer shopping at larger stores that have a selection and are able to keep their shelves stocked.
  • niatrue posted:

    on 7th October 2009, 15:49:02 - Reply

    [Edited by moderator] what most research says is behind obesity: genetics. I wonder what the differnece is genetically between these two demographic populations (British and Dutch)?