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2. Food consumption in the Nordic countries

Nordic diets are unsustainable at present and their impact on the climate is substantial. The high impact especially stems from the significant intake of animal-based products (Blomhoff et al 2023; Klimarådet 2021; Wood et al. 2019). Denmark's food consumption leads to some of the highest climate impacts globally, with CO2 emissions 45 percent above the global average. This is primarily due to the country's significantly high consumption of animal-based foods (Klimarådet 2021:12). Likewise in Finland, the intake of dairy and meat are responsible for 65 percent of the climate impact from Finnish diets (Matschoss 2022) and in Norway, dairy and meat account for approximately 80 percent of carbon emissions from food (van Ort & Holmelin 2019).
From a health perspective, the Nordic countries have witnessed an increase in obesity over the last decades (Jørgensen et al. 2010). Today, 51 percent of people in Sweden and 52 percent of Danes are considered overweight, while 25 percent of the Icelandic population is classified as obese (Röös et al. 2021; Jensen et al 2022; Ministry of Health 2019). In Norway, some studies show that only 23 percent of men and 42 percent of women have BMI lower or within the normal range (Folkehelserapporten 2023). In Finland, among young adults under 30, more than 35 percent of women and nearly 50 percent of men are overweight. Among adults over 30, it is 63 percent of women and 72 percent of men that are considered overweight, with 28 percent of women and 26 percent of men being obese (Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare 2024).
In addition, non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer have also increased for decades (Jørgensen et al. 2010; De Schutter et al. 2020). The increase of these types of diseases is linked to a high intake of salt, sugar, and saturated fat and a low intake of fruit and vegetables (Reisch et al. 2017). As such, unhealthy food consumption patterns contribute to significant problems for public health. Few Nordic citizens meet the recommended intake levels of fruits and vegetables, and many consume insufficient amounts of whole-grain cereals (Harwatt et al. 2022; Lemming and Pitsi 2022).
A healthier diet not only benefits individual health but also aligns with more climate and environmentally sustainable practices (Norwegian National Nutrition Council 2017; Willett et al. 2019). According to an analysis by the Danish Council on Climate Change, the average Dane aged 6-64 years could reduce their climate impact from food consumption by 31-45 percent by following national dietary guidelines, simultaneously benefiting their health (Klimarådet 2021). For the health of the Nordic population and the well-being of the planet, the need to shift towards more sustainable and healthier diets is undeniable.
Despite these challenges, which are well-researched in the Nordic countries, consumers largely ignore advice on how to mitigate this burden. The latest report on food consumption in Norway shows a concerning trend away from the current Norwegian dietary recommendations and The Norwegian National Action Plan for a Healthier Diet (2017-2023) (Helsedirektoratet 2023; Regjeringen 2017). For instance, there is lower consumption of fruits and vegetables than recommended, and higher consumption of salt, saturated fats, and red meat.

2.1 A closer look at how Nordic diets align with NNR2023

NNR2023 recommends a diet that is predominantly plant-based, rich in vegetables, fruits, berries, pulses, potatoes, and whole grains. Ample amounts of fish and nuts. A moderate intake of low-fat dairy products, and limited intake of red meat, white meat, processed meat, alcohol and processed foods containing high amounts of added fats, salt and sugar (Blomhoff et al. 2023). NNR2023 is primarily designed for national authorities rather than for direct consumer guidance. National authorities utilise the recommendations to formulate national dietary guidelines that are consumer-specific. In NNR2023, advice is presented for different food groups recommending how each food group should be included in Nordic diets based on a strict methodological review of research. In the following we take a closer look at three food groups, and how the Nordic intake aligns with the science advice presented in NNR2023.
The three food groups are: 1) Vegetables, fruits, and berries, 2) Red meat, and 3) Fish and seafood. Data from the latest national dietary surveys in each of the Nordic countries are used and compared with the science advice from NNR2023
See appendix for data references to the national dietary surveys
. The most recent national dietary surveys in Denmark (2011-2013), Sweden (2010-2011), and Norway (2011) were conducted over a decade ago, whereas Finland’s latest survey dates to 2017, and Iceland’s to 2022. Nevertheless, supplementary data sources suggest that meat consumption levels are still higher than the recommended intake, while the consumption of vegetables and pulses is too low (FAO 2016; Jordbruksverket 2024).
Photo: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

2.1.1 Vegetables, fruits, and berries

According to the NNR2023 scientific guidelines, each individual should consume between 500-800 grams, or more, of a variety of vegetables (excluding potatoes and legumes), fruits (excluding fruit juice), and berries daily. Figure 1 illustrates the actual consumption of vegetables, fruits, and berries in comparison to these NNR2023 guidelines.
As depicted, the consumption in all Nordic countries falls below the lower limit of the NNR2023 recommendations, ranging from 200-400 grams per day. The lowest consumption is observed in Iceland, which can be partly attributed to the country's climate. A comparison of the current and previous dietary surveys in Iceland reveals a decrease in the number of people meeting the recommended intake of vegetables, fruits, and berries (Directorate of Health 2022).
Figure 1 Consumption of vegetables, fruits and berries in each Nordic country compared to NNR2023 science advice.
Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud/norden.org

2.1.2 Red meat

Scientific guidelines recommend limiting the consumption of red meat, including processed meats, to no more than 350 grams per week (in ready-to-eat weight) due to health concerns, and suggest that for environmental reasons, the intake could be even lower.  High consumption of red meat is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from diets in the Nordic and Baltic countries (Röös et al. 2022; Wood et al. 2023). Red meat includes beef, lamb, goat, various game meats (such as moose, deer, and reindeer), and pork. Among these, game is the most environmentally friendly option. NNR2023 also emphasize the importance of ensuring that reducing red meat intake should not lead to increased consumption of white meats (like chicken, hen, turkey, and duck). Instead, it should be replaced with plant-based foods and fish from sustainably managed stocks.
In all Nordic countries, red meat consumption exceeds the recommended maximum of 50 grams per day (Figure 2). Denmark records the highest intake, at 136 grams per day, nearly three times higher than the NNR2023 guidelines suggest. This consumption rate in Denmark is also significantly above the European average (Wendler and Halkier 2023). In Iceland, there has been a 10 percent reduction in red meat consumption, equivalent to 60 grams per week, between surveys conducted in 2010-2011 and 2019-2021. This trend indicates a move in the right direction, but consumption levels remain far above the recommended maximum of 350 grams per week.  However, from an environmental perspective, the recommended intake of animal protein should be even lower. Two independent studies, published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment and Nature Communications, have demonstrated that reducing animal protein intake to around 11-12 percent optimises global land use and enables organic feeding (Muller et al. 2017; van Kernebeek et al. 2016). Currently, in Europe, the consumption of animal protein constitutes 38 percent of dietary protein intake (EEA 2024) indicating a significant discrepancy.
Figure 2 Consumption of red meat in each Nordic country compared to NNR2023 science advice.
Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org

2.1.3 Fish and seafood

For fish and seafood, the recommended science advice is to consume 300-450 grams per week (ready-to-eat weight). On a daily basis this amounts to 42-64 grams. As illustrated in Figure 3, all the Nordic countries are below the advice with the exception of Norway. The Norwegian Directorate of Health’s dietary advice on fish corresponds to a total of 300-450 grams of pure fish per week. At least 200 grams should be fatty fish.
Figure 3 Consumption of fish and seafood in each Nordic country compared to NNR2023 science advice
We can conclude that current Nordic diets significantly diverge from the NNR2023. To bridge this gap, substantial behavioural changes are essential. Currently, many scholars emphasize the importance of understanding the behavioural drivers behind healthy and unhealthy diets (Schutter et al. 2020). Consequently, the next chapter will explore the behavioural determinants in food consumption.