Discovering a Healthy Ireland

17 Apr

Since arriving in Dublin, a question that has always plagued me is, “How do Irish people stay healthy?” I see college students eating bags of crisps and sweets throughout the day; the vending machine that is currently across the corridor from me is full of crisps, candy bars, and sugary soft drinks. At least six students have come by and gotten food or drinks out of them in the past twenty minutes. Is that going to be lunch? Where are the fruits and vegetables? The sandwiches in the café around the corner are loaded with mayonnaise, butter, fried chicken, or bacon. People drink a lot of alcohol very frequently. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke hang outside of restaurants and pubs. Yet somehow, Ireland does not seem to be an unhealthy country. In fact, the average life expectancy is higher than that of the United States – 80 compared to 78 years old. How did this strange health culture develop, and how is it sustaining the population?


Among the ranked causes of death in Ireland, coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and lung disease all make it into the top five. Most of these diseases can be prevented through lifestyle changes that promote better health. It does seem like there is a connection between the habits and behaviours of young people I’ve observed and the cause of death around the age of 80, but what happens in between to cause the Irish population to generally appear healthier than Americans, despite a poor diet and a lack of apparent exercise? Granted, weight is not at all an indicator of health; a high metabolism does not counteract clogged arteries or deteriorating internal organs, but “obesity” is not a buzzword on the Irish medical scene like it is in the United States.

The Irish Nutrition and Health Foundation (NHF) has played a big role in advertising the benefits of an active lifestyle; however, they take a more moderate approach to lifestyle changes.


According to the NHF core messages, it is important to “be aware of your weight” and to “choose a monthly day” to weigh yourself. The rhetoric surrounding weight is much less obsessive and dominant than it is in the United States; focusing the goals of the organization on health rather than weight may be a reason why Ireland is a healthier country. America’s preoccupation with dieting and losing weight often creates a quick fix for weight loss, not a sustainable lifestyle change. The NHF also encourages local sourcing as a pathway toward better health; this message has not yet become realized in the States, as local food is more seen as a privilege for wealthy hipsters, not as a solution to overprocessed outsourced foods. Finally, the NHF acknowledges that people who have different lifestyles will require different caloric intakes. Their message “adjust your intake to suit your needs” helps people avoid going to extremes with trendy diet and exercise regimes. Moderation seems to be Ireland’s key message in its health promotion materials, and I think it is a fair one. In looking at U.S. health promotion materials, there seems to be a lack of congruency among different organizations responsible for the nation’s health awareness. Both the Centre for Disease Control and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s rhetoric is vague and immeasurable, making us very aware of the problems but not to the solutions. In contrast, the Irish NHF provides many solutions to problems that aren’t expressly communicated. There are not scary statistics about childhood obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and other health related conditions supporting the desire for a lifestyle change. This implies that it is always in a person’s best interest to improve health through moderate and reasonable lifestyle changes regardless of if there is a problem that needs to be expressly solved.

I think this rhetoric is powerful in an Irish population, but I’m not sure that the positive message would resonate the same way among most Americans. American culture is very individualistic cause-and-effect centred; why should I need to change my lifestyle if there isn’t a problem? I think that while European culture seems much less actively involved in their health, the U.S. has a lot to learn from this model of moderation and balance of diet and physical activity.

View the rest of NHF’s core messages:

And see how the countries of the world line up in life expectancy:




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