Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag


An American in Reykjavik: Are Icelanders healthy or unhealthy?

By Matt Eliason

  • Health Crisis? Icelander's supposedly eat some of the healthiest foods on the planet, yet they have the highest percentage of overweight females in Europe. Photo/Daníel Rúnarsson

Matt Eliason has just moved to Reykjavík, Iceland from Chicago, Illinois. In his regular column for Iceland Magazine he chronicles his first impressions of the country, its people and traditions.


Are Icelanders healthy or unhealthy? I’ve been trying to figure this out since I arrived in Reykjavik, however, I’m still not sure if I have a definitive answer. Thus, I think its best to lie out the facts and let you decide for yourself.

For starters, Icelander’s food choices are consistently ranked one of the healthiest diets in the world. Primarily consisting of healthy proteins such as fish, the Nordic cuisine has been praised by numerous prominent food sources as the perfect place to eat healthy and stay fit. Icelander’s are known for their healthy yogurt skyr and eat a lot of lean meats such as lamb. 

What's the deal? 60% of Icelandic women and 73% of Icelandic men are classified as obese.

Furthermore, the Reykjavik downtown area is not littered with the fast food joints found in the United States or England, but rather healthy seafood stores. Additionally, Icelander’s are not gobbling down their fish by the masses. Iceland has tiny portion sizes that make my American appetite outraged by the small (but healthy) food distribution in restaurants.

Not only are Icelander’s eating healthy foods, but the Viking nation has the cleanest air and water in the world. Icelander’s hit the gym on a regular basis and the Icelandic man is known as one of the strongest in the world.

So what’s the problem? The irony of Icelander’s supposedly healthy diet is the fact that Iceland has the 2nd highest percentage of obesity per capita in the world.

In a recent study done by the global health journal, it was determined that 60% of Icelandic women and 73% of Icelandic men are obese. That is an extremely high percentage that I think only my American counterparts can rival. The connection doesn’t make sense. How are Icelander’s eating the healthiest foods and exercising regularly, but yielding the fattest results?

My best guess is that an increase in soda consumption – Icelander’s are currently the number one per capita consumers of Coca-Cola in the world – mixed with a decrease in exercise amongst younger kids, are the leading factors in the Icelandic war on obesity. A study showed that the average caloric intake among Icelandic children had not increased over the last fifty years, in fact it had actually gotten better. 

Therefore, that leaves the lack of exercise as the main culprit. Maybe the Icelandic “strong men” are lifting too many weights, while neglecting the cardio portion of the workout. Despite my theory regarding a lack of exercise, I don’t have any definitive answers as to why Icelanders are both considered the healthiest and the unhealthiest group of people in world - It all depends on who you ask. 

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