Nations That Win in Nutrition

Date: 01/28/2014    Written by: Beth Levine

Nations That Win in Nutrition

We are all aware of America's bad reputation for having a fast food culture and lack of overall good nutrition.  But are there other countries that are truly much better?  And if so, where are they?  According to new research, the answer is yes, there are about 20 nations that have much healthier eating habits than the United States, and first among them is the Netherlands.

The rankings were put together by a group known as Oxfam, a nonprofit organization based in Oxford, England with an anti-poverty focus, and the researchers found that the Netherlands was the number one country in the world for people to easily maintain a highly nutritious, well balanced diet.1  That's an interesting conclusion, since some traditional Dutch meals include Hutspot, a high glycemic mashed potato dish, and Erwtensoep, a pea soup packed with pork and sausage.  Obviously, there must be more to the Netherlands' dietary story, or they wouldn't have ranked so highly in the study. Incidentally, a little further south in France and Switzerland high nutrition ratings were achieved as well, as those nations tied for second place.  In fact, the top 20 spots were almost exclusively populated with Western European countries, with the exception of Australia, which was ranked eighth. And again, as with the Netherlands, there must be more to their story than Bloomin' Onions at the Outback Steakhouse.

Just what makes the Netherlands and some of its neighbors in Europe so exemplary, nutritionally speaking?  The researchers devised a model in which a number of factors were weighed, including whether fresh produce, lean sources of protein, and clean water were all readily available to individuals living there.  Another major consideration was if all of these sources of good nutrition were priced reasonably enough that a family would not have to choose less nutritious fare to maintain a budget.  To compare how well each nation did in these categories, the scientists analyzed eight different reports published by the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the International Labor Organization.

This data was processed to assess the quantities of food available to citizens, how nutritional the available food was, and the impact of diet on overall health in that country, which was based on the rates of diabetes and obesity.  Wealthier nations obviously start off with an advantage as they typically have more food accessible to a larger number of individuals.  But less affluent nations may make up for that difference by scoring higher in the areas of nutritional food offerings and healthy populations. In other words, having fewer fast food options can move you up the rankings.

There were 125 countries around the world included in this research.  Many of the ones ranking near the bottom were comparatively poor, developing nations such as Chad and Ethiopia, where child malnutrition rates hover around 30 percent2 and adequate sources of food can be hard to come by.  Because of various food production problems in these nations, much of the food is imported and it can be prohibitively expensive for many impoverished families.

As mentioned above, the United States was ranked 21st in the list, in a tie with Japan.  Due to the affluence of the U.S., healthy food is relatively inexpensive and readily available.  The problem lies in the health of its citizens.  With an obesity rate of 35.9 percent in adults according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics and a diabetes rate of 8.3 percent (with 35 percent of adults considered prediabetic) according to the American Diabetes Association, it's not really much of a surprise that America was not ranked in the top 20.  In fact, the U.S. landed in the 120th position--out of 125!--when the researchers limited the determined to how diet impacts health in the country.

So how does a country like the Netherlands achieve a first-place ranking, despite traditional foods that aren't always the most healthy?  It starts with smaller portion sizes, so that even if foods high in calories are consumed, the sheer number of calories is often lower. While fast food places certainly exist in Europe, they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are in most American towns. Nor have they been promoted as heavily--at least not yet. And Europeans tend to get more physical activity naturally, walking and biking to destinations rather than always jumping in a car.  Americans can definitely stand to take a page (or two or three) from the nations of Europe as far as diet and exercise habits.  While a listing such as this one from Oxfam is not exactly the holy grail of how healthy a country's eating habits are, it can at least help shine a light on where problems may lie.

  • 1. Doucleff, Michaeleen. "Where in the World is the Best Place for Healthy Eating?" NPR. 15 January 2014. Accessed 20 January 2014.
  • 2. "Prevalence of Child Malnutrition (Percent Underweight Under Age Five)." Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 2013. Accessed 21 January 2014.

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    Submitted by Karen on
    March 5, 2014 - 7:40am

    I read your newsletter every day and have your book also. I live in a huge country that borders yours, yet according to most Americans, we are insignificant to the point of non existence or ridicule. Since many of your followers ARE CANADIAN, it would be nice to be mentioned once in awhile.

    Submitted by BaselineFoundation on
    March 6, 2014 - 12:46pm

    Hey Karen:

    Thanks for saying hello from Canada. We actually have readers from almost every country in the world—China, Iran, Zimbabwe, you name it--with the exception of North Korea, and we try and be conscious of them. We try and acknowledge references and cite studies from around the world, not just the US. For example, we have a blog on acetaminophen coming up, but for our readers in Canada and elsewhere make note of the fact that it’s also known as paracetamol, and we even dedicated an entire newsletter to examining the Canadian Toxic Nation study.

    That said, let’s take this opportunity to give a special shout out to you and all of Canadian subscribers. We appreciate you all and thank you for your support. Thank you for introducing new Canadian friends to so you can double your presence in our community.

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