What One Nordic Country Can Teach Us About Healthy Living

What can a country where sheep outnumber residents by about 2.5:1 teach the US about healthier living? Plenty.

Last week, I was on vacation in a country with no McDonald’s or Starbucks, supermarkets with relatively few processed foods for sale, natural beauty wherever I went and a population with few obese people who were smiling most of the time. In winter, this country becomes bitterly cold, with only a few hours per day of sunlight, but from what I gathered by speaking with people, it doesn’t seem to bother them one bit.

Where is this seeming nirvana on earth? It’s in Iceland, a 5-and-a-half-hour flight from New York City where I live. It turns out that much of the rest of the world – and particularly the United States – can learn a lot from Iceland, a country created a very long time ago from a huge volcanic eruption, and perhaps most famous for its Blue Lagoon geothermal bath and the singer Bjork.

Iceland was uninhabited until about 874 AD, when settlers from neighboring Norway – aka the Vikings – arrived. Today, Iceland has a population of about 348,000 people. There are far more sheep – about 800,000 — roaming the country than people. And they have more than enough land and grass to feed on.

The Icelandic diet is key to why its citizens, on average, can expect to live to 81.6 years of age. That’s #19 in the world, according to data found on the website Geoba.se. In case you are wondering, the US is #53 on that list, with a life expectancy of 79.25.

If you think Icelanders don’t eat well to live long, you’d be wrong. Menus in restaurants are heavily focused on seafood, especially salmon and arctic char, as well as cod, pollock and mussels. Lamb, chicken and beef are also readily available. The emphasis is on locally grown and raised produce and livestock. Factory farming, it seems, doesn’t exist in Iceland.

I also didn’t see a lot of gyms where I went. It seems that people do a lot of walking wherever they go. Why? The government deliberately prices gasoline high – about $8.40 per gallon for unleaded – to discourage excessive driving and to promote the use of public transportation and walking.

When it comes to health care spending, Iceland actually spends significantly less per capita compared to the US – and it has better health outcomes. Data published in July 2017 from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) found that Iceland spent $4,376 per capita on health in 2016. In the US that year, it was $10,348. Both Iceland and the United States are members of the OECD.

What is Iceland doing that the US isn’t? According to the OECD, it has in part to do with the fact that the number of doctors and nurses per capita is above the OECD average. But I am also willing to bet that diet and exercise are key reasons why health costs are substantially lower than in the US.

Yes, Icelanders do pay a lot in taxes compared to Americans. The personal income tax rate is a whopping 46.3% and the sales tax is 24%. However, citizens there are paid more to compensate for these relatively high tax rates and, unlike in the US, most Icelanders feel their government spends their tax dollars wisely.

I will definitely be going back to Iceland, likely during the winter so I can witness the famous Northern Lights. I hope that some American legislators go there too, so they can implement here at home what Iceland is doing right for the health and longevity of its people.


Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is an associate editor at BioCentury, which provides news and information about the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to joining BioCentury in 2019, Jonathan worked for MedShadow as content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.


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