'Please eat six to eight slices of bread a day'

Swedes are the healthiest people in Europe. After seven years spent living among them, Andrew Brown knows exactly why - and he's not having any of it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The news, in a new survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit of the major powers in Western Europe, that Sweden is the healthiest nation will have inspired people all round the world to take up smoking, and to drink more while lolling in front of the television. Swedes are like Californians without the sunshine; and if we're all going to turn into earnest and vacuous hunks on a treadmill, is healthy living really worth the effort?

Except that Swedes aren't quite like that, at least not all of them. They don't even kill themselves very often: that they do was a myth invented by President Eisenhower when he needed to discredit socialist medicine. Now that the British have abandoned the NHS too, it is probably safe to say that during the seven years I lived in Sweden, I was horrified at the number of dirty, short, ugly and otherwise disfigured people in the streets every time I returned to England. They were disfigurements of poverty: it is noticeable that in a country where all children without exception are fed large quantities of healthy food, they all grow up straight and tall and clean. Even Swedish bikers wash.

From an early age, Swedes are bombarded with health exhortations. These are very different from American health warnings, which say things like "Do not attempt to chew this product while walking" and "Consumption while sky diving may be hazardous to health". In Sweden, they prefer the positive approach. "The Department of Social Affairs wants you to eat between six and eight slices of bread a day," said one national poster campaign. It was ridiculed, but not because anyone thought it ridiculous to want to eat six to eight slices a day.

From the skimmed milk you drank at breakfast to the gruel you sipped at night, everything used to come with a triangle on it showing the "nutritional pyramid". The message was that as little as possible of what you fancy does you good. The broad base contained things like lentils and potatoes, and the vanishing tip red meat, or, worse, anything that actually had any flavour.

It was enough to drive anyone to drink - usually a trip of about fifty kilometres. In the hamlet where my wife's parents lived (the home of Edet Krapp lavatory paper, in which recycled journalism meets its proper end), you had to order drink 24 hours in advance from a town thirty miles up the road. If you struggled all the way to the off-licence yourself, you found the drink stored behind bars and the most formidable array of temperance propaganda I have ever seen. Even the carrier bags in which you carried it away urged you not to drink the stuff. The window displays were a never- ending cavalcade of variations on the theme of "Don't". There was one particularly lovely poster of a partially dissected human body with every organ labelled to show the damage that alcohol did to it. I remember impotence, sterility, pins and needles, tremors - and those were just the symptoms brought on by reading the poster.

Perhaps because of this, even the drunks were healthy. Outside the bus station they used to drink all winter, showing their machismo in undress. They wore string vests and buttock cleavage exposed to the snow, and swigged from bottles of Renat - at least that's what we used to call the cheapest vodka you could buy, drunk only by desperate losers. Its full name was "Absolut renat", meaning "absolutely pure" - in other words it wouldn't make you blind like moonshine. It is now marketed as the last word in youthful sophistication under the name of "Absolut". So health may be easier to attain than you think.

In fact, Swedish health can be really dangerous. Take Oskar, a schoolmate of my 17-year-old son. Oskar had access to a cabin in the mountains, and a crate or three of beer to see him through the weekend, so six of his friends descended on the place to play loud music. But they didn't just loll around boozing. After a couple of hours they went outside to dance naked in the snow. Once they had had enough of this healthy exercise, they went back inside to warm up around the stove. Oscar was so cold that he was holding the bluest and most shrivelled part of himself over the top of the stove. Then he turned to talk to someone, lost concentration, and touched the stove. With a dreadful scream, he leapt from the hut and threw himself on a convenient snowdrift, while his friends stood around with tears of laughter freezing down their cheeks.

He'll live, I'm told, and probably to a hundred. But will it be worth it?n

John Lyttle is away.

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