SSB analyse 2020/12: Statistics for a sustainable diet

More sustainable eating habits in the countryside


What people eat depends on where they live and how much money they have. In Sudan, people in the countryside often eat healthier and more sustainable foods, than those who are economically better off and live in the city.

How is the diet affected by urbanization and poverty?

This analysis shows how Household Budget Surveys (HBS) can help to understand differences in eating habits between different groups of people. It can thus be useful in formulating policies to achieve a desired local diet according to people’s needs.

Food security and sustainable food systems are on the agenda. In June 2019, Norway launched an action plan for increased efforts in this area, with a special focus on the least developed countries. A little earlier in 2019, the EAT Lancet report provided concrete recommendations on the composition of a diet consisting of 2500 calories per day while still ensuring sustainable food production and good health for all people on the planet.

Pursue good local eating habits

A healthy and sustainable diet, according to the EAT-Lancet report, implies that most people should eat less refined flour and sugar, and more fruit, vegetables and beans. According to the recommendations, red meat, poultry, eggs and fish should not be eaten in larger quantities than about once every week in a slightly small typical Norwegian portion. The recommendations in the report provide indicative figures for the average intake of various food groups, and caused a great deal of debate when launched. The authors of this article have chosen to use the recommendations as a reference measure for consumption in Sudan. The EAT recommendations are the same wherever in the world you live, but one thing both EAT supporters and its critics seems to agree upon is that local diet recommendations should be anchored in local food traditions.

Why is Sudan chosen as an example?

Different countries have challenges of various kinds. We have chosen to put the spotlight on Sudan to show how information on food consumption collected in household budget surveys in a country with high poverty levels can be used. This information is not usually presented independently in statistics reports but is used indirectly to calculate living conditions and consumption basket for the consumer price index (CPI). Furthermore, we want to study the differences in people's eating habits in poor versus better off households and areas.

Sudan is used as example because Statistics Norway and the Central Bureau of Statistics in Sudan have cooperated for many years, working together on preparing and analysing the data from the last two budget surveys in Sudan.

The consumption survey, on which this analysis is based, was conducted in 2014/15 when 11,953 households were visited three times in the course of a year. They answered detailed questions about how much they had consumed of almost 200 food items. They were also asked about living conditions, such as education, health and work, which is interesting backgrounds for analysis. The survey is representative of each of the 18 states in Sudan. Two publications? provide more information about the survey and food security and poverty in Sudan.

High intake of grains and sugar in Sudan

Figure 1 shows the caloric intake per person of the main food groups in Sudan compared to EAT's recommendations. The reason for measuring in calories is that this is comparable across food groups. Compared to EAT's calorie recommendations, a person in Sudan eats an average of 50 percent more staple foods and three times more sugar. The other food groups are used in much smaller quantities than EAT recommends. The EAT report does not present country figures for actual food consumption but outlines the composition of average calories by food groups for some regions. Unlike in most of Africa, a typical Western diet consists of much more meat, eggs and dairy products than recommended.

A diet with a relatively large share of staples is common in poor countries. Consumption of large amounts of staples often replaces more expensive and more nutritious types of food, and the consequence is too little nutrients. These foods are generally a cheap option to ensure sufficient calorie intake. Sugar is also relatively inexpensive, and even the poor often eat large amounts of sugar. It is also important to note that even though people in Sudan eat a relatively large amounts of staples, many do not achieve their daily calorie requirements. About 40 percent of the population live in households that consume too few calories. The total caloric requirement of the household is the sum of the members' recommended average intake, given age and gender and with the assumption of a low level of physical activity.

Take note that not all the calories reported by households in the survey are included in the figure. Some food from cafes or food stalls consists of complex products that cannot be classified. This only applies to a small proportion of the total in Sudan, around 3 percent.

Figure 1. Average daily caloric consumption per capita. Sudan and EAT's recommendations by food groups

Staple foods Fruits&Vegetables Milk Meat&Fish&Eggs Legumes&Nuts Oil&Butter Sugar
Sudan 1325 97 77 31 147 233 363
EAT's recommendations 850 204 153 151 575 450 120

City dwellers are switching to more refined food

Staples are the most important source of calories, but Figure 1 above does not say anything about their nutritional content. The general recommendation, both by EAT and others, is that the staples should consist of only whole grain products. In the Sudan survey some staple foods lack enough information to be classified as either refined or whole grains, but these make up only a small part of the total staple calorie intake: about 13 percent.

In total, rural residents eat more staples than urban dwellers. However, the intake of refined flour, such as white bread and white pasta (food that according to the recommendations should be avoided) is twice as high in the cities as in the village. On the other hand, in the village, whole grain products are eaten in three times larger quantities compared to refined flour. The average intake of whole grain products in rural areas is on a par with the EAT recommendations.

Figure 2. Average daily caloric consumption of staples per capita. Urban and rural Sudan and EAT's recommendations

Staple foods of whole grain Staple foods of refined flour Staple foods
Urban 298 680 1147
Rural 874 374 1421
EAT's recommendations 850 0

The consumption of beans and nuts, which both are considered nutritious and sustainable foods, is somewhat higher in the rural areas than in the urban, as seen in Figure 3. But the amount is still far below what EAT recommends. The use of meat, fish and eggs, which are nutritious but must be consumed in limited quantities due to sustainability reasons, is below the recommendations and is somewhat higher in the urban areas. The intake of sugar, a food you should eat little of, is far above the recommendations and a little higher in urban than in rural Sudan. Otherwise, there are no major differences between urban and rural areas. The reason why people eat other food in urban areas than in the village, may be that the food selection is more varied , for example consisting of imported goods. Food prices in urban areas may also affect people’s choices, with relatively lower prices for imported food and higher prices for food produced in rural areas locally. Since urbanization is significant in most countries, including Sudan, it is likely that more and more people will adopt an urban diet. In the case of Sudan, this means a transition to more unhealthy refined products.

Figure 3. Average daily caloric consumption per capita. Urban and rural Sudan and EAT's recommendations by food groups

Fruits&Vegetables Milk Meat&Fish&Eggs Legumes&Nuts Oil&Butter Sugar
Urban 101 81 107 89 236 389
Rural 99 76 85 114 232 349
EAT's recommendations 204 153 151 575 450 120

Geography and economy are important for food choice

Where in the country you live is important for what food you have access to and what you eat. This is especially true in countries where different geographical areas have less interaction because transport and communication are less developed than, for example, in Norway. Another important dimension is income: the poor - ie those who cannot afford a minimum of what is considered necessary - do not have the same opportunities to choose what they want to eat.

We have taken a closer look at 4 of Sudan's 18 states. The states have been chosen to cover different parts of the country, varying urbanization, different degrees of poverty and different consumption of selected foods: The foods we study also represent extremes in terms of nutritional content.

Khartoum is the capital of Sudan and is also a separate state. More than 80 percent of the population in Khartoum state live in urban areas. There are about 30 percent poor in Khartoum. Central Darfur, on the other hand, is a remote state with an urban population of less than 20 percent. It is one of the poorest states in the country: two thirds are considered poor. 44 percent of Red Sea's population lives in urban areas, and about half live below the poverty line. One in three people living in the state of Blue Nile also lives below the poverty line, and only one in four lives in an urban area.

Intestines - An outdated food source?

Eating intestines could be considered more sustainable because more of the animal than just the muscles, is utilized. In addition to being much cheaper than other animal products, it is particularly nutritious food. This could therefore be a food that the authorities in a country want to promote the consumption of. We do not show how much people have eaten, but only if they eat intestines at all. This provides information about to which extent intestines is a common product to eat.

There is neither a large nor a systematic difference between the poor and the non-poor when it comes to the consumption of intestines. The difference is greater between the states: In the Red Sea- and Khartoum states, people rarely eat intestines, while 60-70 percent of the population in the Blue Nile and Central Darfur eat this type of food. The consumption of intestines may therefore appear to be conditioned by different food cultures. One hypothesis is that intestines is seen as inferior food in more modern areas, but we cannot read from the numbers why someone opts out of a product.

Figure 4. Percentage of population eating intestines. States and poor/non-poor, Sudan

Non-poor 71
Poor 66
Central Darfur:
Non-poor 65
Poor 70
Blue Nile:
Non-poor 11
Poor 21
Non-poor 5
Poor 4
Red Sea:

Sugar and refined flour are, as pointed out earlier, foods with little nutritious values, and should be limited and replaced by other foods to ensure a healthier diet. Consumption of these "fast carbs" is much higher among non-poor than poor in each of the four states, as Figure 5 shows. The same figure also shows that there is a big difference in the consumption of these foods across states. The extremes are Khartoum, where an average of almost 900 calories per day are eaten from refined wheat and the like, while people in Central Darfur eat just under 100 calories from such processed foods.

Consumption of refined flour and sugar may appear to be conditioned by culture as well as the degree of poverty and urbanization. The latter connection is also shown in Figure 2.

Regarding intestines, white flour and sugar, we see a tendency for those who have a greater opportunity to choose what they eat, to move towards unhealthy foods and a diet that is less sustainable for the planet. The challenge in Sudan will be to stimulate people to maintain the healthy portions of the traditional diet while getting enough food and greater freedom of choice due to poverty reduction and urbanization.

Figure 5. Average daily caloric consumption of refined flour and sugar, per capita. States and poor/non-poor Sudan

Poor Non-poor
Sugar 184 305
Foods of refined flour 52 145
Central Darfur:
Sugar 234 363
Foods of refined flour 228 387
Blue Nile:
Sugar 284 500
Foods of refined flour 633 990
Sugar 283 450
Foods of refined flour 408 729
Red Sea:

The article is based on an analysis financed by Norad.

Sudan Central Bureau of Statistics. (2017). Sudan national household Sudan National Household Budget and Poverty Survey 2014/15. CBS Report No. 11.

Sudan Central Bureau of Statistics and Statistics Norway. 2019. Food security and poverty analysis from Household Budget Surveys. Analysis of the 2014/15 Sudan Household Budget and Poverty Survey.

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