The Dutch Diet and Lifestyle

What is it about the Dutch? They’re generally tall (often freakishly so), thin, healthy, energetic, they speak very directly and honestly with one another, they’re discreet about their personal lives and finances, they have a strange love for the color orange, they consume a lot of bread and dairy, they ride bicycles almost everywhere….

There appears to be a pervasive philosophy of minimalism, moderation, anti-indulgence, and anti-extravagance in the Netherlands. It is considered rude to flaunt one’s wealth, overeat, or accumulate material possessions. Whether this is part of their pre-WWII culture or not, I am not certain.

There are a lot of things about the Dutch that could warrant further investigation, but I want to know how they have gotten so tall, thin, happy, and healthy. Thus, I shall focus on their diet and exercise.

Let’s start with a breakdown of when and what the typical Dutch person eats and drinks each day:

~7 AM, Breakfast: 2 pieces of rye or wheat bread with butter, jam or candy sprinkles OR 2 slices of either low fat ontbijtkoek (like spice cake) or eirkoeken (egg cake). The egg cake is high in protein. A beverage includes two or three cups of black coffee, hot cocoa, and/or a glass of milk.

~10 AM, Later Snack Breakfast: 2 pieces of cake or bread (same as the earlier breakfast). Add some dropje (licorice candies) and 1 or 2 glasses of milk (often chocolate or coconut flavored).

12:30 PM, Lunch: 2 open-faced cheese and meat (or fish) sandwiches or soup with a roll or two, and a little fruit, more dropje, plus 1 or 2 more glasses of milk

~ 6 PM, Dinner: well-boiled or deep-fried vegetables (kale, onions, carrots, endive, cabbage, sauerkraut, fava beans*, or pickled beets) mixed in with mashed potatoes (called “stamppot”). Meat is an optional side dish: Sausage, ham, bacon, fish, meatballs (often deep-fried). Another popular main course is thick pea soup with ham or bacon. Maybe add another glass of milk. Bread is usually not served with dinner.

~6-7PM, Dessert: small portions of fruit, custard (vla), karnemelk (buttermilk) with fruit, or yogurt. Greasy food like donuts (Oliebollen, fried in lard) and pancake balls (called poffertjes) are usually eaten on weekends only. Many Dutch drink another cup of coffee with dessert.

A note about those licorice candies: The Dutch are in love with “Dropje,” little licorice-flavored candies. They eat about 14 pounds per year per person! Could it be that these anise sweets are key to keeping the Dutch alive and well? Dropje began as herbal medicines and ended up being part of their culture. (The anise seed aids with digestion, flatulence, congestion, expectoration, and oral hygiene.)

And what about all that bicycle riding the Dutch are so famous for? Surprisingly, the average Nederlander doesn’t exercise all that much. According to some studies, they only bicycle between 15 and 30 minutes per day and there are no real hills to climb; most of their terrain is level. Many Dutch do not even work out in a gym. One theory is that the Dutch exercise in moderation; this reduces their stress level, making it easy for the body to remain relaxed and not gain weight.

In 2010 the Hogeschool Van Amsterdam reported that the Dutch diet consists of 17 percent protein, 50 percent carbohydrate and 33 percent fat. It is estimated that the average Dutch person consumes 3,320 calories per day. Let’s see how this breaks down:

  1. MILK! = 4-6 glasses (12-oz) of milk per day = 48-72 ounces per day (and at least one of those glasses of milk is karnemelk, which is buttermilk)
    1. Golly gee whiz! 48-72 ounces a day of milk is a boatload of milk!
    2. That’s over 1300 calories per day in milk alone! Shocking! (Man may not live on bread alone, but maybe milk…?)
    3. They generally drink whole milk and, prior to the 1980s, most of the Dutch people drank raw, unpasteurized milk. (Many still prefer the raw variety.)
    4. BREAD! (either savory or sweet and cake-like) = 6-7 slices or per day. Wow! Really? Well, wait. The typical slice of bread in the Netherlands looks like it’s about half of an American slice, so, by US standards, the Dutch are eating about 3-3.5 slices of bread a day. But all that bread is very satiating. It’s no wonder the Dutch don’t get hungry and feel like snacking between meals. But how do they not gain weight from eating all those carbs? Probably the rye. Dutch bread typically has a lot of rye bread has a lot of health benefits. It can prevent gallstones, aids with weight loss, and can prevent constipation, amongst other useful properties. (Sounds like fodder for a future blog….)
    5. Meat = 5.3 ounces per day or less (The Dutch eat 3.5 ounces of fish, usually herring, per week; good for omega 3 fatty acids.)
    6. Cheese = 1.5 ounces per day (not as much per day as one would suspect in a Gouda-rich country)
    7. Vegetables = 7 ounces per day (That’s impressive when you consider how stuffed full of bread and milk the Dutch people are.)
    8. Potatoes = 1 potato per day (eaten at dinnertime in place of bread)
    9. Coffee = 2-4 cups per day
    10. Butter = a little more than half an ounce per day (Note: Many Dutch have switched to olive oil since 1950.)
    11. Licorice drops = 4.8 grams per day (Let’s not forget that’s 14 pounds a year per person.)
    12. Yogurt = 6 ounces per day for an after-dinner dessert (if not eating about 6 ounces of vla, which is an uncultured custard). The yogurt intake is not extraordinary in itself; however, it is their main dessert (aside from vla) and that is worth nothing. It’s much healthier and lower in sugar than other desserts. And let’s not forget the probiotic content of yogurt. Could it be that the timing of their yogurt consumption is important? Could eating yogurt before bedtime be especially healthy, keeping those probiotics and enzymes working on one’s digestion overnight?

Total Estimated Calories: 2,375 (considerably lower than the estimated average.)

My Humble Conclusion:

The Dutch are too stuffed with bread and whole, raw, unpasteurized, probiotic-rich milk expanding in their stomachs and guts to ever snack between meals. (And from what I have been learning about bacteroidetes lately I wonder if the Dutch diet is full of wonderful probiotics.) –note added 4/16/14

Perhaps, along with a little moderate exercise, like 15-30 minutes of bicycling every day, keeps the Dutch stress free so they don’t gain weight as easily. The Netherlands looks like a wonderful place. I think I need to travel there and stay awhile to further my investigation…

If you are Dutch or know someone who is, please write to me. Share your wisdom and knowledge!

Thanks for reading!

*Fava Beans: I’m curious about these edibles, which are often included in traditional diets. See a more recent blog posting about these legumes. In the Netherlands, fava beans are traditionally eaten with fresh savory and some melted butter.

Thank you to My Sources: (Fun video of bicycling in the Netherlands),r:19,s:14,i:225×600/wg-copenhagen-3.jpg

Dutch Diets |


5 thoughts on “The Dutch Diet and Lifestyle

  1. I’m writing this from my room in den Haag (The Hague).
    I can give you a little insight here. First the food is all very fresh. I don’t think factory farms are a thing here. Growth hormones are not allowed in livestock used for milk or for consumption. The quality of all foods are very high by american standards. Breakfast is often bread, (1 slice is the size of my hand from wrist to fingertips and as wide as my hand) a bit of cold meat, a peeled, cooked cold egg, Muesli or cold cereal (if you don’t want bread) yogurt, fruit juice, or milk and coffee. Every where, you walk or you bike. If it is far, you take the train. Not many people own cars as they do in the US or Canada. Lunch is often green salad, cucumber, tomato, perhaps an open face ham and cheese on brown bread sandwich and a glass of beer, coffee or milk. The meat and cheese is sliced very thin and is a single layer. The beer is about 4% alc. The coffee is black and strong. Dinner is at around 7-8 pm. It resembles lunch, or may have more meat and greens. By more meat, I mean perhaps a 3-4 oz. steak and not the 8-12 oz steaks or 1/4 pound hamburgers of the US.
    A few biggest differences that I have seen here is that the potions are approx. half the size of the US, fresher, whole foods and a real lack of snacking. Potato chips and chocolate bars are rarely seen while walking down the street. Food stores are small family run businesses and do not devote entire aisles to such things as chips. The food is all very fresh and simply made. There are few elaborate sauces. Also, Beer and wine; It has a somewhat lower alc. content and is enjoyed more often. It is very sociable to go for drinks with ones work mates.
    Coffee cups are usually 6 oz., not the 10-12 oz that are in north America. A can of cola is 330 ml, not 385. Milk is 8 oz, not 12 oz. Sizes of many treats are smaller here and are consumed less frequently.
    I have yet to see an advertisement relating to doctors, medical institutions, prescription drugs or fitness centers. The few commercials I have seen on TV for weight related products are in english with Dutch subtitles.
    Having come from wintering in Texas, where I gained 40 pounds over 5 months, I would have to say that I am probably the largest woman here, tipping the scales at about 200 pounds. I have seen no one here larger than myself who was not a tourist. It’s rather embarrassing to be so heavy. In the US, I felt “normal”. Here, I feel like a blimp. Frankly, this is how it should be. Lying to myself is not the right way to address my weight issue. Obesity is not normal. It is not genetics. It’s simply lifestyle and consistent personal choices.

  2. I think also genes? Normally tall and lean/thin people stay that way,even finding it difficult to gain weight due of fast metabolisms? Unless of course the majority of Dutch aren’t.

    • I think it is also about the lifestyle we have as youngsters. It is special if you have a car if you’re younger than 20. Depending on where you live, you have to cycle for about 4-20 km a day to get to secondary (high or middle) school some even more. Kids don’t go by car because that would include the embarrassment of parents bringing them, and public transport is not ideal (we don’t have school buses). Add another 3 hours of gym class, and 3 for non-schoolrelated sports.
      A typical day for me at high school;
      6.45 wake up with hot chocolate (uncommon) eat bread with chocolate sprinkles (typical),
      cycle 10 km (uncommon in my area, 5 being the average)
      8.15 eat some snack (stroopwafel), (uncommon time to do so)
      Start of school (no eating in class),
      10.30 Eat other cookie/apple, drink tea (water is more common),
      13.00 2 slices of bread with nutella/jam/ham/speculaas, tea/water
      17.00 eat fruit & cookie
      -cycle 10 km (6 miles)
      when I arrived home I would eat toasted bread with cheese
      Dinner; (I hated potatoes, compensated when we had pasta or rice) some meat and veggies
      desert; yogurt with cereal
      sometimes if I were hungry I would eat additional bread, during homework I would eat either 100 grams of chocolate or dropjes. (which is not normal).
      There is not enough time to eat that amount of calories. There was one kid who would eat like I did, and lived as far away from school and he was jealous of me not being overweight. But he only saw me eat, not the fact that I did sports and went to school by bike every day, instead of once a week. It makes a huge difference.
      Universitystudents do all groceries by bike. Actually, they eat bikes. So when they are 30, they are probably very fit and used to an active lifestyle.
      Taking the bike here is safer and veggies are way cheaper, same goes for the good bread. Sure, I have good genetics (only the slim genes, not the tall me being 5’5″), but it is also the basic metabolism. Dutch people get fat too as they age, because inactivity mainly. But we have a lower start-weight as we get fat. And being active makes it easier to just take a bike for a change.

  3. I was looking for any mention of alcohol or tea anywhere in the diet. The Dutch love their beer! And, at least in the cities, Indonesian has been the second most common food since WWII. I’d be interested to know how you might fit that in to their overall health.

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