Protection against obesity : food and nutrition in Europe 2

A sign of deprivation, stunting increases the risk of morbidity, impaired
cognitive development and poor school performance in childhood and
reduced work productivity in later life (163,164). Stunting is a sensitive
measure of poverty and is clearly linked with low birth weight (165).
In the European Region, levels of stunting in young children are low in
western countries but high in eastern ones, especially the central Asian republics.
Fig. 1.26 shows that in Tajikistan, for example, over half the children under 5
years of age are stunted (,
accessed 25 September 2003) (80–82,109). In Uzbekistan, 31% of preschool
children are stunted and 14% of these are severely stunted (166).
Fig. 1.26. Prevalence of stunting
in preschool children, selected European countries, 1990s
Sources: WHO Global Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition (http://, accessed 25 September 2003),
Kazakhstan demographic and health survey (DHS), 1999 (80), Turkey demographic and health survey (DHS), 1998 (81) and Kyrgyzstan demographic and
health survey (DHS), 1997 (82).
Stunting is usually more pronounced in rural than in urban areas. This
suggests that hygiene and environmental conditions partly determine stunting
(166). Kazakhstan (80), Kyrgyzstan (82) and Yugoslavia (
nutgrowthdb/intro_text.htm, accessed 25 September 2003) all report about
twice the rate of stunting in rural as in urban areas. The exception to the
pattern is Uzbekistan, where stunting was reported to be slightly higher in
urban areas (109).
Croatia (1995–1996)
Armenia (1998)
Czech Republic (1991)
Hungary (1980–1988)
Yugoslavia (1996)
Romania (1991)
Kazakhstan (1999)
Turkey (1998)
Russian Federation (1993)
Azerbaijan (1996)
Albania (1997)
Kyrgyzstan (1997)
Uzbekistan (1996)
Tajikistan (1996)
Prevalence (%)
0 10 20 30 40 50 60
Diet and disease 55
While stunting is most common in the central Asian republics, less than
optimal growth patterns may be found among poorer groups in relatively
wealthy countries, such as the United Kingdom. Gregory & Lowe (167) have
shown that the average height of children from the wealthiest households
(with over £600 weekly income) is 10 cm over that of children from the
poorest households.
Dental health
Dental caries is a process of enamel and dentine demineralization caused by
various acids formed from bacteria in dental plaque. The DMFT (decayed,
missing and filled permanent teeth) index is a universally accepted measure of
dental health. The score for any individual can range from 0 to 32 and
represents the number of teeth affected (168).
Caries is caused by acids produced mainly from the interaction of specific
bacteria with dietary sugar: the bacteria do not produce enough acid to
demineralize enamel without sugar. Fluoride is the main factor altering the
resistance of teeth to acid attack. Fluoride reduces caries by reducing
demineralization of enamel, by remineralizing enamel and by altering the
ecology of dental plaque to reduce bacterial acid production (168).
Fig. 1.27 shows DMFT scores in children in Europe (169). Even in the
countries with relatively low DMFT scores, 65% of children have had dental
caries in their permanent teeth (170). The CCEE and NIS continue to have
significantly higher caries levels than other European countries; these levels are
well above the European average and the WHO target of a population average of
3 or fewer DMFT (169). In addition, caries affects the vast majority of people in
eastern countries from an early age; in most of western Europe, it is concentrated
in certain groups. Further, the percentage of untreated caries lesions in 12-yearolds has been reported to be 11% in the Czech Republic, 29% in France, 45%
in the United Kingdom, 46% in Hungary and 53% in Poland (169).
Dental care is expensive. Table 1.2 shows how dental caries accounted for
the largest proportion of all direct costs to the health care service in Germany
in the 1990s and the second-largest share of total costs.
In older people, oral health status is especially important and influences
nutritional status. Dental caries, traditionally considered a problem of
childhood, progresses throughout life and may accelerate with old age (168).
Periodontal disease increases with age. As a result, older people have fewer
natural teeth, are more likely to be toothless (edentulous) and are also
vulnerable to dietary restrictions for other reasons such as disability and
medical or social conditions.
Chewing problems are relatively common in older people. They can cause
dietary restrictions and thus compromise nutritional status and wellbeing
56 Food and health in Europe
Belgium (Flanders)
Germany (eastern)
Germany (western)
United Kingdom
Italy (Venice region)
Czech Republic
1982–1988 1989–1995
Fig. 1.27. Average number of DMFT in children, European Region, 1982–1988 and 1989–1995
Source: Marthaler et al. (169).
Diet and disease 57
(171,172). Wearing dentures limits dietary intake and nutritional status, as it
may alter food choices, which may result in lower intakes for key nutrients
such as iron and fibre (173–176).
Tooth loss is associated with a lower intake of hard-to-chew foods such as
apples and carrots, and edentulous people consume fewer fruits and vegetables,
less fibre and carotene, and more cholesterol, saturated fat and energy than
people who have retained their teeth (175). In older people living in their own
homes, intakes of most nutrients, fruits and vegetables were significantly lower
in the edentulous. In the United Kingdom, raw carrots, apples, well done steak
or nuts were difficult for many edentulous older people to eat: for about 20%
of those living in their own homes and over 50% of those in institutions. The
daily intake of fruits and vegetables, non-starch polysaccharides, protein,
calcium, non-haem iron, niacin, vitamin C, intrinsic and milk sugars and
plasma ascorbate and retinol were significantly lower in edentulous people.
Plasma ascorbate was significantly related to the number of pairs of teeth at the
back of the mouth that are capable of chewing fruits and vegetables (177).
The health of the ageing population of Europe
The population of Europe is ageing, and within the EU alone, the number of
people aged over 80 years is estimated to increase by about 30% over the next 50
years (178). Because life expectancy is increasing across the European Region,
despite the differences (see Fig. 1.28), an increasing proportion of the
population is older. This means that the overall disease burden can be expected
to rise sharply, which will tend to offset the benefits of good preventive measures.
For a variety of physical, social and psychological reasons, older adults are
considered to be at risk of nutritional problems, either as a result of impaired
food intake or reduced nutrient utilization. Both cross-sectional and
longitudinal studies in older people show a decline in energy intake with age
(179,180). Several of the health problems and bodily changes they experience
have long been attributed to the normal ageing process but are increasingly
being linked to lifestyle, socioeconomic or environmental factors (181). For
example, four fifths of pensioners in Romania have incomes below the official
subsistence limits (67).
Diet and morbidity and mortality among older people
The FINE (Finland, Italy and the Netherlands) study investigated the
association of dietary patterns and mortality in more than 3000 men aged 50–70
years in the three countries. Of the 59% of men who died during the twentyyear follow-up, mortality was highest in eastern Finland and lowest in Italy. The
national differences were striking in that Finnish men with healthier diets had
higher mortality rates than Italian men with more unhealthy diets (182).
58 Food and health in Europe
Other detailed studies on older people in Europe have emphasized the
importance of an appropriate diet in determining mortality and morbidity
rates as well as mental functioning (183). From 1988 to 1999, the Survey
Europe on Nutrition in the Elderly: a Concerted Action (SENECA) found
evidence of deficiency in 47% for vitamin D, 23.3% for vitamin B6, 2.7% for
vitamin B12 and 1.1% for vitamin E (184).
There is evidence that plasma homocysteine levels in many older people
are related to inadequate intake of folic acid (185–187). Homocysteine levels
relate not only to lower levels of plasma folate but also to estimates of folate
intake, and have been associated with an increased propensity to CVD and
especially thrombosis. The association of high homocysteine levels with poor
mental functioning may therefore reflect the impact of a series of small
cerebral thromboses. Detailed studies in Italy have revealed that low folate
levels are especially evident among older people living at home, with higher
rates among men and among those who drink more alcohol and take a variety
of drugs, which reduce the bioavailability of dietary folate. Thus, those taking
drugs for a variety of medical conditions have 2–3 times the prevalence of low
folate deficiency. Other European studies have shown that about 75% of older
Fig. 1.28. Trends in the proportion of the population 65 years or older
in the WHO European Region, 1970–1998
Source: European health for all database, WHO Regional Office for Europe.
1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
EU average
CCEE average
NIS average
Nordic average
Central Asian republics
Proportion (%)
Diet and disease 59
people have abnormally high homocysteine levels, which are correlated
inversely with both plasma and dietary folate (188).
Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, E and D, are important for older
people. Studies in Italy show a clear decline in vitamin A status with age as
food intake falls (189), and a higher level of vitamin E in the plasma lowers
the likelihood of marked atherosclerosis among older people (190). It is
therefore not surprising that vitamin E status, as well as the adequacy of intake
of B vitamins, has been linked to a higher survival rate and lower mortality.
The SENECA study shows a high prevalence of vitamin E and B6 deficiency
among older people in Europe. An appreciable proportion of the poor mental
functioning of older people in Europe may therefore prove to be preventable.
As older people reduce their food intake in response to decreasing physical
activity, iron intake falls. Any difficulty in chewing food because of dental loss
reduces the intake of iron-enhancing vegetables and meat (173–176). In a
follow-up to the SENECA study, Martins et al. (191) reported that, of people
in Portugal aged 81–86 years, 49% of men and 73% of women consumed less
than the lowest European recommended dietary intake. Anaemia rates,
however, are not unusually elevated, except in the central Asian republics,
where iron availability is severely compromised or intestinal parasitism or
other intestinal disease limits iron absorption. The modest prevalence of frank
anaemia among older people needs to be distinguished from the much higher
prevalence of anaemia among people who are ill and depend on nursing and
other help with food, either at home or in institutions. Many well recognized
techniques identify older people at risk, such as those living on their own,
having difficulty in moving and shopping or displaying poor appetite and
poor dental health (192,193).
The importance of a healthy lifestyle in later life
The decline of the vitamin status of older people in Europe is of serious public
health concern and is related not only to the marked decline in physical
activity but also to the often poor quality of the diet among very old people,
many of whom are either edentulous or have serious dental problems (168).
This suggests that the quality of the diet needs to be improved. The general
importance of adequate vitamin status in older people was assessed in a
double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Giving the equivalent of the
recommended daily allowances of vitamins and some minerals to apparently
healthy older people not only markedly improved their immune status but
also led to a halving of intercurrent illnesses in the subsequent year.
How much the health of older people can be generally improved – by
either improving the quality of the diet or simply increasing their physical
activity so that they increase their intake – is uncertain. Nevertheless, the
importance of increasing physical activity in older people has certainly been
60 Food and health in Europe
underestimated. Detailed studies in the Netherlands have shown that the
greater the physical activity of older men, the lower the subsequent mortality
rate. Thus, the rate among the most active third of older people was more
than halved (194). This surprisingly strong effect of physical activity may
reflect not only improved nutrition but the well recognized impact of even
modest physical activity in reducing CVD mortality (195). In older people,
physical activity is also likely not only to maintain better bone structure and
greater power in better maintained muscle mass but also to limit the adverse
metabolic effects of obesity. Intervention studies encouraging older people to
take up even modest physical activity markedly improved their flexibility and
sense of wellbeing (196). This is a neglected area of public health in Europe.
Fig. 1.29. Adjusted hazard ratios of the individual and combined effects
of diet, nonsmoking and physical activity on mortality
in a sample of European men and women born between 1913 and 1918
Note: The ratios were adjusted for age at baseline, region and the number of
chronic diseases. HQ diet = high-quality diet; LQ diet = low-quality diet.
Source: Haveman-Nies et al. (197).
1.36 1.00
Hazard ratio
Low activity High activity Low activity High activity HQ diet
LQ diet
1 unhealthy behaviour
2 unhealthy behaviours
3 unhealthy behaviours
3.08 2.21 2.21
1.76 1.75 1.00
Hazard ratio
Low activity High activity Low activity High activity HQ diet
LQ diet
Smokers Nonsmokers
No unhealthy behaviour
Diet and disease 61
The SENECA study highlighted the interaction between a good diet and
physical activity by investigating their effects on the survival of older people
individually and in combination with nonsmoking. The study population,
aged 70–75 years, consisted of 631 men and 650 women from cities in
Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
A lifestyle score was calculated by adding the scores of the three lifestyle
factors. Each factor and the total lifestyle score were related to survival in these
European populations (Fig. 1.29). Combining types of unhealthy behaviour
increased the risk of death: men and women with three unhealthy types of
behaviour had a three- to fourfold increase in mortality. These results (197)
emphasize the importance of a healthy lifestyle, including multiple lifestyle
factors, and maintaining it with advancing age.
Healthy behaviour is related not only to a higher chance of survival but
also to a delay in the deterioration of health status. Ideal healthy ageing is
described as a situation in which people survive to an advanced age with their
vigour and functional independence maintained and with morbidity and
disability compressed into a relatively short period before death (198).
Fig. 1.30 shows the effect of healthy behaviour on life expectancy and
health status. The health status of survivors of the SENECA birth cohorts
with healthy and unhealthy lifestyles is presented, with hypothetical extrapolations from the age of 82.5 years. During the ten-year follow-up period, the
health status of the survivors with healthy lifestyles declined less quickly.
Fig. 1.30. Effect of healthy lifestyles on healthy ageing
in a sample of Europeans born between 1913 and 1918,
including hypothesized effects after 2000
Source: adapted from Haveman-Nies et al. (197).
Age (years)
72.5 82.5
Healthy survivors (%)
62 Food and health in Europe
In conclusion, healthy behaviour increases the chance of survival and delays the onset of illnesses. Although the SENECA study could not determine
the net effect of these two relationships on the process of healthy ageing, postponing the onset of major morbidity is likely to compress morbidity into a
shorter period.
The burden of osteoporosis
Osteoporosis means that the amount of bone per unit volume decreases but
the composition remains unchanged. It occurs progressively after people reach
peak bone mass as young adults. The two nutrients essential for bone health
are vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D deficiency is common among elderly
people, often caused by poor nutrition and/or inadequate exposure to sunlight
(199). Subclinical deficiency of vitamin D, known as vitamin D insufficiency,
may increase the risk of bone fractures if osteoporosis is already present. The
yearly incidence of osteoporotic hip fractures in the EU is projected to more
than double, from over 400 000 (80% in women) to almost 1 million, by
2050 (Fig. 1.31).
Fig. 1.31. Projected numbers of yearly incident hip fractures
in EU countries, 1995–2050
Source: adapted from Report on osteoporosis in the European Community –
action on prevention (200).
Osteoporotic fractures have an overall mortality of 15–30% (201,202).
They are associated with considerable morbidity and often require
Fractures (thousands)
1995 2000 2010 2020 2030 2040 2050
Diet and disease 63
hospitalization, rehabilitation and home care. The economic burden of
osteoporosis is considerable. For example, the total cost of hospitalization for
hip fractures in the EU was ECU 3.6 billion in 1995, and is expected to rise
with the number of fractures (203). Fig. 1.32 shows the direct estimated costs;
these include surgery and postoperative stay, but not longer rehabilitation. For
Sweden and the United Kingdom, for which data are available for the indirect
costs of hip fracture (such as primary care, outpatient care and institutional
care), the total amount is 2.5 times the direct hospital costs.
Fig. 1.32. Estimated total direct hospital costs arising from hip fractures
in 13 EU countries, 1996
Note: No national data were available for Luxembourg or Portugal. The figures
for Austria are based on the costs in Germany.
Source: adapted from Report on osteoporosis in the European Community –
action on prevention (200).
Physical activity plays a well established role throughout the lifespan in
maintaining the normal structure and functional strength of bone.
Specifically, physical activity can prevent or slow down the bone loss that
begins occurring in women as a normal process after menopause (204).
In summary, while most chronic diseases manifest in later life, the quality
of life needs to be maximized until death. Adopting health promoting behaviour, such as physical activity and healthy diets, provides clear benefits to ageing individuals and populations. As the proportion of older European increases, interventions will influence an even greater number of people. In
0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000 1100 1200 1300 1400 1500
United Kingdom
Costs (ECU million)
64 Food and health in Europe
turn, improved health results in less dependence and reduces the cost of
health care and institutional care (see Chapter 4, pp. 237–239, for policy recommendations).
Nutritional health of vulnerable groups
Refugees and internally displaced people
In the midst of major socioeconomic and political transition, and in part as a
result of the severance from traditional trade and financial links with the former USSR, many of the NIS and CCEE are not maximizing their industrial
and agricultural potential and some are further crippled by natural disaster
and political strife. These conditions continue to damage food security and
the nutritional status of the affected populations.
For instance, the three-year conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina
jeopardized the health and nutritional status of older people. By January
1994, 15% had a BMI below 18.5. Because the vegetable supply was poor, so
were plasma carotenoid levels and plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 levels in
65% of older people, most likely because of poor exposure to sunlight after
months of siege (205). Protein and energy undernutrition was not a
widespread public health problem, however (110).
In 1999 in Kosovo, 11 000 children older than 5 years were estimated to
be acutely malnourished and about 17 000 would be affected by stunting.
Over 5% of the surveyed mothers had a BMI below 18.5 and more than 10%
were obese (206). Other examples are Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where both
drought and civil conflict have increased the frequency of both wasting and
Migrant groups, refugees and travellers constitute minorities residing –
sometimes temporarily – within populations. Surveys of dietary patterns and
nutritional status among these groups are sparse. As of 1 January 2002, the
United Nations High Commission for Refugees classified nearly 5 million
people in Europe as persons of concern, including refugees and asylum seekers
(, accessed 25
September 2003).
Transient populations such as the Roma, an ethnic minority group of
northern Indian origin that is especially numerous in the CCEE and western
NIS, suffer additional strains on their health, as they are often stigmatized.
More than 5 million Roma live in the CCEE. They are estimated to account
for more than 5% of the population in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and
Slovakia (207). With few exceptions, members of groups such as the Roma
have low socioeconomic status. A study of Romany children aged 9–13 years
in the Czech Republic found inadequate consumption of vegetables (19% of
the recommended daily allowances (RDAs)), fruit (20% of RDA), milk and
Diet and disease 65
milk products (32% of RDA), cereal foods (63% of RDA) and fish, meat,
poultry and eggs (on average, 78% of RDA) (208). The children were
consuming more than four times the recommended amounts of various snack
foods containing fat and sugar. Compared with Czech children, Romany
children typically consumed half the amounts of fruit, vegetables, milk and
milk products. Yet when asked what foods they liked, 90% of Romany
children mentioned fruit of various types. Their low consumption may reflect
the constraints on choice arising from low income (209) and lack of access to
fruits and vegetables because of high seasonality in rural areas (210,211). This
highlights the need to address availability and expense rather than
concentrating only on education and information campaigns. These results
may also help explain the reports of elevated obesity rates in Romany children
Children who are especially vulnerable to food insecurity and poor diet
tend to grow and develop more slowly than others of their age (208). In
Azerbaijan, anaemia rates were consistently higher among internally displaced
populations (, accessed 25 September 2003). In Kazakhstan, the Kazakh ethnic group has a higher rate of anaemia than the
Russian ethnic group (212).
People in hospital
Evidence shows that some patients in European hospitals are undernourished
and that undernutrition may increase during hospital stay. The prevalence of
underweight (BMI < 20) among hospital patients is 20–30%. This problem
has been described in Denmark (213), Germany, Italy (214), Norway (215),
Sweden (216), Switzerland (217,218) and the United Kingdom (219).
Good nutritional care for patients provides clear benefits, but several factors have prevented its adequate provision in Europe (see Chapter 4, pp. 242–
243, for recommendations on nutrition in hospitals):
• unclear responsibilities in planning and managing nutritional care;
• insufficient education on nutrition for some staff groups;
• patients’ lack of influence and knowledge;
• insufficient cooperation between staff groups; and
• inadequate involvement of hospital managers.
Some patients who have little fat-free mass could be undernourished
despite having a normal BMI (218). Most of the studies assessing the
nutritional status of patients have excluded those who are most ill and hence
most likely to be undernourished (213,220). Finally, obese patients could
become undernourished while losing weight (221).
66 Food and health in Europe
The prevalence of undernutrition is much higher among some patient
groups, such as gastrointestinal patients, than among others, such as people
admitted for obstetric services or elective surgery. In addition, undernutrition
is higher among old patients (213,219,222–224). The prevalence has been
suggested to be slightly higher among medical than surgical patients (219),
among women (225,226) and among patients in teaching hospitals than
those in district general hospitals (220,227).
A survey of hospitalized children under 5 years in Kosovo found that 44%
were fed vegetables and 84% fruit; 58% of the children were anaemic (18%
severely and 40% moderately), possibly in part because tea was given to 80%
of infants. The average age at which tea was introduced into their diet was 5
months. In 68% of hospital cases, children had not been breastfed for 6 full
months, and 63% of the children had been given cow’s milk before reaching 6
months of age.
Many studies have shown that the risk of undernutrition increases during
hospital stay (228–232). For example, of 112 patients with all kinds of
diagnoses hospitalized for more than 1 week, 64% had lost weight when
discharged (mean weight loss: 5.4%), including 75% of those initially most
undernourished. In contrast, 20% gained weight, including only 12.5%
originally classified as undernourished. None gained sufficient weight to allow
them to be reclassified as having normal weight (219).
A reduced length of stay in hospital and decreased complication rates
benefit both the patient and the health services. Improving hospital nutrition
may bring the services substantial savings: at least £330 per surgical patient
according to one estimate (233).
A study in Denmark suggested that nutritional support could save the
health services €133 million for every 100 000 patients (221). A study in the
United Kingdom estimated that the National Health Service could save £266
million per year through nutritional support, based on the assumption that
10% of patients would benefit (234). A study in the United States (235)
suggested that appropriate and timely nutritional support could save a typical
large hospital over US $1 million per year.
Social inequalities and poverty
Various studies have surveyed the dietary patterns of different socioeconomic
groups in Europe using a variety of indicators, such as household income,
occupational class or the educational level of the head of the household (see
Chapter 3, pp. 158–168).
The DAFNE (Data Food Networking) study looked at household food
purchases made by different socioeconomic groups based on educational
attainment levels in Belgium, Greece, Hungary and Poland in 1990 (236).
Diet and disease 67
The study found that dietary patterns differ considerably between countries,
possibly reflecting different phases of the nutrition transition. These
differences were generally greater than the differences found between
socioeconomic groups, although the latter showed certain patterns. In general,
lower socioeconomic groups tend to consume more meat, fat and sugar,
although not necessarily the lowest socioeconomic groups, who may be partly
excluded from more commercialized food supplies. The groups with the
highest educational level appeared to consume more fruits and vegetables,
although in some countries the groups with the lowest educational level, who
may be growing their own produce, consumed a great deal.
De Irala-Estevez et al. (237) and Roos et al. (238) support these findings;
they examined dietary survey data for several western European countries and
showed large socioeconomic differences in fruit and vegetable intake, with the
higher socioeconomic groups usually consuming more fruits and vegetables
(Table 1.4).
Table 1.4. Difference in fruit and vegetable consumption among groups
with high and low education in selected European countries and
regions, 1980s and 1990s
Source: Roos et al. (238).
These figures are based on surveys made in the 1980s and 1990s. A more
recent examination of fruit and vegetable consumption in Spain (239)
suggested that the patterns of fruit and vegetable consumption now reflect
those of northern Europe, with people in higher educational groups having
higher intakes than those in lower educational groups.
Among over 3000 Norwegian adults, those with higher educational and
occupational status ate more fruits and vegetables and more dietary fibre and
less fat (240). People living in cities also had healthier diets than those living
in rural areas, although other data indicated that farmers in Norway tended to
Country or region Difference (g per 10 MJ consumed per day)
Fruits Vegetables
Finland +55 +30
Sweden +18 +23
Norway +26 – 3
Denmark +46 +43
United Kingdom +31 +33
Germany +16 +14
Netherlands +52 +19
Navarra +14 + 9
Catalonia + 6 –19
Basque Country –97 +31
68 Food and health in Europe
have a lower-fat diet, lower serum cholesterol and less CHD than people in
urban areas (Gunn-Elin Bjørnboe, National Council on Nutrition and
Physical Activity, Oslo, Norway, personal communication, 2000).
The United Kingdom has a long history of monitoring dietary patterns
related to income levels, and annual food purchasing surveys have shown
that household income is consistently related to certain dietary patterns.
Families living on low incomes tend to consume less fruit and vegetables
(Fig. 1.33) (241), fish and whole-grain cereal foods and more refined cereal
foods, sweet foods, fat and oil (242). As a result, the intake of essential
nutrients shows a marked social gradient from poorer to richer households
(Table 1.5).
Fig. 1.33. Relationship of income to consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the share of income spent on food in the United Kingdom
Source: Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (241).
Further surveys in the United Kingdom have shown that vulnerable
groups – including older people, children from manual social classes, families
claiming state benefits and children from lone-parent families – have lower
intake and lower blood levels of many vitamins and minerals than others in
the population (111,167,243). Intakes of vitamin C, folate, iron, zinc and
magnesium are well below reference levels in households with incomes below
£180 a week (the lowest income cut-off) or in households with more than
three children or headed by a lone parent (241). Among the poorest fifth of
families, the intake of some nutrients declined over a period of 15 years:
vitamin C by 23% and beta-carotene by 47% (244).
Consumption (g per person per day)
Income spent on food
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
0 0
Share of income (%)
Consumption (g)
Deciles of net family income (per head) a
1 = lowest incomes; 10 = highest incomes. a
Diet and disease 69
Table 1.5. Household income and average levels of consumption
of several essential nutrients in the United Kingdom
Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (241).
Studies of socioeconomic status and breastfeeding suggest that, in more affluent countries, the frequency and duration of breastfeeding are greatest
among higher-income groups. In the United Kingdom, for example, mothers
in the highest-income group are twice as likely to be breastfeeding during the
first week after a baby’s birth than mothers in the lowest group, and the socialclass differences grow over subsequent weeks (Table 1.6).
Table 1.6. Breastfeeding rates in high and low socioeconomic groups
in the United Kingdom, 1999
Source: Nelson (245).
Inequality and diet-related diseases
The dietary patterns described above may go some way in explaining the different disease patterns experienced by different social groups. A survey of
more than 15 000 adults in the United Kingdom found significant differences
in the prevalence of disease factors across different social classes defined by
occupation (Table 1.7).
The short-term effects on disease of inequality between social classes can
be illustrated among individuals who change social class during their adult
lives. A study in Oslo found that people who moved from lower to higher
income or vice versa showed mortality rates that approached but did not equal
those of the class to which they had moved (246).
decile (%)
Vitamin C
0–10 1.175 204 43.2 8.3 6.6
10–20 1.601 231 50.8 9.5 7.3
20–30 1.631 245 54.7 10.0 7.8
30–40 1.742 250 56.7 10.2 7.8
40–50 1.773 253 60.7 10.3 7.9
50–60 1.914 257 63.2 10.5 8.1
60–70 1.921 256 62.3 10.5 8.0
70–80 1.984 266 69.4 10.8 8.2
80–90 1.937 269 73.4 11.0 8.3
90–100 2.075 273 80.8 11.2 8.3
Time Breastfeeding rates (%)
Social class I Social class V
At 1 week 84 40
At 6 weeks 73 23
At 4 months 56 13
70 Food and health in Europe
Table 1.7. Social class and ill health: prevalence of diseases
and risk factors in adults in the United Kingdom, 1994
Source: Colhoun & Prescott-Clarke (117).
Cancer rates can show a similar change in pattern: after Turkish migrants
move to Germany, their disease rates rise towards the levels prevailing there
(247). This implies that changing lifestyle – including food and diet – can
affect the health experience of the groups being assimilated and can therefore
explain some of the inequality in disease rates among these populations.
As shown in Table 1.7, lower-income groups in the United Kingdom tend
to have higher heart disease rates, and many countries in Europe show a
similar relationship. The cause is likely to be multifactorial, including
smoking, physical activity, stress, occupational factors and other psychosocial
factors (248), as well as nutrition.
Nevertheless, the same pattern may not be found among populations
adhering to diets more like those traditionally eaten in southern Europe.
Kunst et al. (249) examined data on socioeconomic status and heart disease
mortality in several European countries. Although data sources were not
perfectly compatible, and data for some groups were unobtainable, the figures
fairly consistently show that lower socioeconomic status and heart disease are
most strongly associated in northern Europe and among younger populations.
In contrast, the association tended to be reversed among older populations in
southern Europe (Table 1.8). The analysis was based on data from
longitudinal and cross-sectional studies using national population censuses of
1981. For most of the longitudinal studies, follow-up covered the period from
1980 to 1989.
The trends shown in Table 1.8 may result from several factors, but diet
will play a part. A transition from the heart-protecting diets (rich in fruits,
vegetables and fish) eaten traditionally in southern Europe to diets rich in animal products and refined carbohydrates will increase the risk of heart disease.
Diseases and risk factors Social class
Highest Intermediate
Men Women Men Women Men Women
Ischaemic heart disease (%) 5.1 1.8 6.0 5.2 6.4 7.2
Stroke (%) 1.3 0.5 1.7 2.3 2.1 2.5
Mean blood pressure (mm/Hg) 136/76 130/72 138/76 136/73 139/77 141/75
Cholesterol > 6.5 mmol/l (%) 26 26 27 35 26 36
Haemoglobin < 13 g/dl (%) 3 9 5 12 5 13
Obesity (BMI > 30) (%) 9.9 11.8 13.7 15.0 14.0 22.6
Physically inactive (%) 14 15 15 17 21 22
Diet and disease 71
The fact that such a transition in diet has occurred to a greater degree among
poorer populations and has affected younger more than older members of a
population needs further investigation.
Obesity, physical activity and inequality
Inequality in disease experience may also be related to energy expenditure and
physical activity (see Chapter 3, pp. 165–167). A fitness survey in England
found that people who had more education or owned their homes tended to
engage in more physical activity (250). Unemployed men, and to some extent
unemployed women, tended to be more sedentary than those in employment
(251). Professional people were twice as likely as unskilled manual workers or
economically inactive people to take part in sports or other leisure physical
activity. In addition, a survey of over 15 000 adults in the United Kingdom
found that physical inactivity in both men and women increased as social class
Socioeconomic status and obesity have often been found to be inversely
related among women in Europe (Fig. 1.34) (252). The relationship among
men, although less clear in earlier reviews (253), seems to be similar to that
among women. In the consumer survey of the entire EU, in which BMI was
calculated from subjects’ self-reported height and weight, levels of obesity and
social class were strongly associated, with social class being defined variously
by household income, occupation or educational level (252). The survey
involved over 15 000 people aged over 15 years in the member states of the
In 1997–1998, the WHO Health Behaviour in School-aged Children
study found consistent links between greater family affluence and more selfreported exercise among 15-year-olds surveyed in several European countries
(98). Exercise was more common among more affluent children in Austria,
Table 1.8. Relative riska of heart disease for men in manual versus
non-manual occupations in selected countries in western Europe
a >1 = elevated risk; <1 = lower risk.
Source: adapted from Kunst et al. (249).
Country Relative risk in men aged:
30–44 years 45–59 years 60–64 years
Sweden 1.80 1.38 Not available
United Kingdom (England and Wales) 1.68 1.50 1.26
France 1.18 0.96 Not available
Italy 1.35 1.08 0.85
Portugal 0.82 0.76 Not available
Norway 1.77 1.35 1.26
72 Food and health in Europe
Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Portugal, the Russian Federation and
the United Kingdom, but not in Norway.
A consumer survey in the EU suggested that adults with less education are
more likely to have physically active jobs and are more likely to spend time in
sedentary leisure when not working (254). Those who were older and had
only primary education were the least likely both to take part in physical
exercise and to consider such activity necessary for health.
Lifestyle and choice
In countries where undernutrition and poor child growth are still relatively
common, there is evidence that obesity and underweight may coexist. Studies
carried out in Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan (255) show
that 30–60% of households with underweight individuals also had
overweight individuals: typically an underweight child and an overweight
adult. The causes may be complex, but some evidence suggests that, the more
rapid the nutrition transition, the more likely that both under- and
overweight problems will coexist in the same household (256).
The data reviewed here show wide variation between countries in the
WHO European Region. More economically advanced countries show a posttransition pattern, in which people who are poorer in material or social conditions are likely to eat less healthily and take less exercise. These unhealthy lifestyles in turn generate the inequality observed in morbidity and mortality
from CVD and a wide range of other causes.
In countries with limited access to commercialized food supplies, dietary
patterns may be more like a subsistence diet, relying on staple cereal crops,
Fig. 1.34. Prevalence of obesity among adult men and women
according to economic status (measured by household income
or occupation) in the EU
Source: adapted from Martinez et al. (252).
0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16
Prevalence (%)
Diet and disease 73
some vegetable foods and limited amounts of animal products. Health indicators such as infant mortality rates may be high, but rates of CVD and other
adult noncommunicable diseases may be low, indicating that such diets may
contribute to better adult health.
As discussed elsewhere in this book, factors such as fetal nutrition, birth
weight, child growth and subsequent obesity and disease experience are
shaped by environmental and material circumstances that may be far beyond
the individual’s control. In such situations, efforts to improve health by
exhorting members of the population to improve their lifestyles may have
only limited impact: as Dowler (257) points out:
The implication is that people are able to exert personal choice over what they eat,
or whether they walk/cycle or undertake active exercise, rather than leading a sedentary life, and that the role of those implementing health promotion is to encourage or enable them to make “the right” choices …
In practice, choices in relation to food and activity are not solely individual
matters, unconstrained by family, neighbourhood or material conditions. The
evidence is that structural and social influences – such as the amount of time
and money people can devote to pursuit of good food and active living, the
cost and accessibility of both, the physical area where households are located
and the general social circumstances of the lives of those classified as lower
classes by whatever indicators – constrain and govern choice to a considerable
Public health policies are necessary to ensure that the choices required for a
healthy lifestyle are available to the population and that a healthy choice is an
easy one for all people to make (see Chapter 4).
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