Food, glorious food - Czech eating habits after 1989

After the fall of Communism, a previously unimaginable range of food and drink began to appear on shelves in the Czech Republic. People had the opportunity to eat well and to eat healthily. But recently - as Western trends catch on and fast food culture grows - experts say there has been a noticeable worsening of the average Czech diet. In this week's Panorama, Chris Jarrett takes a look at how the Czech diet has changed since 1989.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Traditionally, Czech food is famous for its high calorie content, with the combination of pork, dumplings and pickled cabbage not helping the increasing rates of obesity in the country. However, the last 15 years have seen significant change in dietary habits in the Czech Republic. Dr. Vojtech Hainer is from the Czech Endocrinological Institute in Prague. He believes that the political events of 1989 brought about a noticeable change in the average Czech diet.

"The traditional Czech eating habits were very high in fat, a lot of pork a lot of high fat salami, a lot of high fat sausages and so on. It was traditional. And it changed a little bit after the velvet revolution, but the reason was not that people were much cleverer and much more aware of health. The reason was very simple. There was an enormous rise in the prices of meat and dairy products, and the response was the decline in the consumption of fatty items at the time."

However, it was not only price variation that affected the way Czechs ate after the Velvet Revolution. The availability of healthier goods in the country also played a significant role.

"It is an enormous chance to have quite a lot of low fat item, for example with regard to dairy products. You could obtain quite a lot of cheese, yoghurts and so on with a low fat content. The supply of vegetables and especially the supply of fruits increased so much that the prices became affordable, so you could afford to buy quite a lot of fruits. Consumption of certain fruits increased very much in country, so there were some positive features. And if you visit any supermarket or hypermarket in the Czech Republic, the supply of fruit is comparable to any other country in Europe."

However, in recent years there has been a noticeable change in health-awareness in the Czech Republic. That is partly because Western lifestyle trends - including a new fast-food culture - really have caught on in the country in recent years, and branches of McDonald's, such as the one I'm now standing in, have sprung up all over the country. Drahomira Jirakova was the very first McDonald's employee in the Czech Republic. She believes that ever since the first McDonald's was built on Vodickova Street in Prague back in 1992, Czech consumers really have been "lovin' it".

"We started in 1992, and we had three million, three hundred guests per year, and last year we served 37 million people, so you can see a really big growth. And we don't have that many foreigners as we have so many restaurants outside Prague or out on highways, so it Czech people who like McDonald's here."

Why do you think it is that fast food has grown to this extent?

"I think that life in the Czech Republic has seen so many changes. People are travelling, people are going out, because until 1992 not so many people ate in restaurants, only at home, so life has changed in the Czech Republic."

And turning to the future, what are the next steps in the Czech Republic?

"We also want to offer more healthy food, because people are taking care about what they eat, so we will have salads and yoghurts, and such nice things for the children and for young people."

But despite these planned improvements, a Europe-wide survey recently conducted by the International Obesity TaskForce suggests almost a quarter of Czech adults are obese, the third highest in Europe. On top of this, around 6 percent of children aged 9-11 also suffer from obesity, a figure which has more than doubled in the last ten years. Although this may be party attributed to inactivity, Dr. Hainer, who is himself a member of the International Obesity TaskForce, believes it is closely linked to greater consumption of fast foods:

"Another factor which is associated with this transition period is the influence of these fast foods, especially among children. Not adolescents, but children. Children like it. So the problem is the traditional Czech kitchen and modern kitchen from the West imported here, this fast food kind of eating. That's another problem."

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
But it is not only food that is causing concern amongst experts. As the country is famous for its beer production and consumption, drink is also a major part of the average Czech diet. The brewing industry has seen continual growth in recent years, both in domestic consumption and in its exports. With over 3 million hectolitres of beer having been exported from the Czech Republic last year alone, Dr. Hainer told me that drink, especially alcohol, is also a major constituent of the average Czech diet:

"We still have the same traditional drinking pattern, you know, the consumption is about 160 litres of beer per capita [annually]. If you include new-borns, everybody in the Czech Republic has about half a litre of beer a day, so it does play a role, of course. We should really decrease our consumption of beer, although we are the traditional producers of beer and beer drinkers, as it does play a role. You know that a really high consumption of alcohol is associated with the enlargement of visceral fat stores, which do play a role in the development of metabolic syndrome and all those complications of obesity."

But it's not all bad news. The efforts and advertising of health food companies are also paying off in a number of areas and Dr. Hainer says there are signs that while Czech children may be choosing Western fast foods, adolescents are gradually adopting a healthier diet.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
"The changes in eating habits can be observed especially among young generations. They do prefer low fat items, much more vegetables and much more fruits. It has changed so much among young generations and especially in cities. I must say that you can see some kind of improvement among the young generations and the urban population."

This was certainly reflected in the response I got when I spoke to people in Prague city centre. I asked people to choose between three meals; a salad, a traditional Czech combination of pork, dumplings and pickled cabbage and a fast food meal, to see which they would prefer:

Middle aged woman: "I'd prefer the salad of course, because Czech food is not healthy, and it is heavy for your stomach. You can't move after it, and there is a lot of fat."

Middle aged man: "Probably the salad. I never actually favoured the traditional Czech meal too much. But of course, I don't want to say that I eat healthily. I also eat a lot of things that are not healthy, fast food and traditional Czech meals included. But at this moment I would say salad."

"Salad, I guess, because it's healthy."

And you think the other two are bad for your health?

"Yeah, I just don't eat them because they're not good for me and I don't feel so well after eating them."

Young man: "Definitely not the fast food. That's one thing I really dislike. First of all it's not healthy and second of all I don't think its really food at all."

So it seems that despite the common perception of the traditional Czech diet as stodgy, Czechs nowadays are going more and more for the healthy option when it comes to food and drink, which can only be a good indication for the future.