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“It’s just a choice, a decision we’ve made,” says sports legend and entrepreneur Magnús Scheving about the fact that Icelanders are now the second fattest nation in the West. He says the peak is not reached, we are going to get even fatter. According to a report commissioned by the Ministry of Welfare, only Americans are fatter than Icelanders among Western nations. The results are striking, says Magnús and they do not surprise him.
“I would have been seriously concerned about this many years ago. I visited schools and kindergartens a lot about 20 years ago and saw a big difference in just a few years. Society was changing then, there were more options for food, exercise was decreasing and video games largely replaced outdoor games,” says Magnús in an interview with the press.
He recalls when he approached video game developers in the West and pointed out to them that there was a dire need for video games that offered movement. “They just laughed at it, said there had to be violence and something to shoot. Then they came out with the Nintendo Wii and won the market. It turned out that there was a significant market for such games,” says Magnús, where other game consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox now offer games that require a lot of movement. Magnús says that the explanations for the increased incidence of obesity lie largely in changing social practices, even though it has long stuck with Icelanders to eat unhealthy food.
“The food is more processed and has come further from the source. Icelanders always ate unhealthy food and we also exercised more, for example at work. There were no eight-hour shifts and people just worked until the last one dropped. Women then went out into the labor market and my mother was no longer at home cooking with fresh ingredients. Now there is a new generation that does not do as much physical work. Instead, the gyms are filled with people who need to exercise,” says Magnús.
“This is our choice, we chose this and each one is responsible for themselves. Kids don’t get fat by themselves, they don’t shop for food. I have said before that the golden age is from 0 to 7 years old. It is the time when kids look up to their parents and believe what the parents do. Then is the right opportunity to talk to them about loyalty.” Magnús is particularly critical of the government in its efforts to get a handle on the problem. He himself says that he felt a lack of interest when he asked for cooperation with the government.
“We have worked extensively with governments around the world. In Mexico, for example, it has resulted in a 29 percent increase in imports of pears and apples from the United States. But we don’t reach the government here well enough and have ended up doing most everything ourselves, for example sponsoring marathons, sponsoring energy entertainments and the like. Which is perhaps not strange because those in power now said no to free media at the time. That says it all, and I have no faith that this government will help with the obesity of Icelanders.”
Magnús says that a large-scale change in mindset is needed to reverse this unfortunate trend. “Icelanders need to think about how the school system is run. Why are the canteens bad? Why aren’t there greenhouses at every school? We have come so far from nature, we are just on some asphalt out in Seltjarnarnes. The whole medical system is behind and the solution doesn’t come until you fall into the well. The Public Health Agency has been thrown back and forth in the system and there is no precedent.”
“The change in attitude also needs to come from parents, manufacturers and stores. For example, we see in Hagkaup that the candy bar is much bigger than the fruit bar. Gas stations are another example, everything there is unsanitary.” Magnús says he has noticed a change in attitude among the youngest generation. In this way, preschool children can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food, something they had problems with here in previous years. However, he believes that the physical condition of the nation is going to get worse, before it gets better.
“I think this is going to get worse a little longer. The snow has not yet arrived and there are going to be all kinds of things that we didn’t realize. This is similar to smoking. Years ago, the gun was pointed at tobacco companies which ended with smoking being banned in public places in many parts of the world. For example, who would have believed that New York would become smoke-free?”
The food gun is coming and will target producers, shops and companies, says Magnús, who says it is interesting that Icelanders are both one of the oldest and also the fattest nations in the world. It looks like this generation will live less than their parents, and it would be the first time. This shows that we are doing something wrong.