Following the Finns to Find Finer Health

Following the Finns to Find Finer Health

The Mediterranean region of the world is famous for its supposed Mediterranean diet. An emphasis on whole plant foods — fresh vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, and replacing butter with a plant-based oil — gives the Mediterranean diet some strength. But who would have thought of Finland as a leader in health? In the 1970s, no one. According the Seven Countries Study, first published in 1970, the men of the North Karelian province of Finland were 30 times more likely to die of a heart attack than men in a place like Crete.  In fact, by 1972, North Karelian men were number one in the world for heart attacks, dying about ten years earlier than their southern counterparts. As a country, Finland got serious about the state of its health and decided to make some serious changes.

The Finnish Ministry of Health hired a young physician names Pekka Puska to tackle the problem. Over the ensuing decades, Dr. Puska pioneered a project that successfully lowered the male cardiovascular mortality rate by 80% in a population of 170,000 Finns. Using the power of existing community groups and with the strength of the Finnish government backing his efforts, Dr. Puska and the team he assembled accomplished this goal by successfully changing the diet and lifestyle of the Finnish population.

When the project launched, not only did half the men smoke, but pork and dairy formed the basis of the diet in the North Karelian province. Vegetables were considered food for the pigs and cows raised on the farms that had been cleared from the native forest. Butter was liberally used to top bread, to add flavor and richness to stews and pastries, and to fry fish or meat. Cattle of the region were prized for the high level of butter-fat in their milk, and dairy subsidies rewarded the farmers for their creamy product.

In order to change the culture and the health of the population, Dr. Puska took advantage of the community groups already in place in Finland. He used established women's clubs to spread the news of adding plants to the diet. For example, the women's clubs helped Dr. Puska popularized recipes that replaced some of the fatty pork in the traditional North Karelia stew with potatoes, rutabagas, and carrots. Members of civic clubs were taught simple messages about reducing salt and animal products so they could easily encourage others to make dietary changes. Dr. Puska spoke at public events in numerous communities, teaching the message that health comes from replacing some of the favored animal products with plant-based food and that lowering salt intake lowers the risk of disease. Over time, Dr. Puska even convinced some members of the local sausage industry to replace a portion of their pork fat with mushroom filler; sales of sausage actually increased after the substitution. Bread companies were persuaded to lower the salt in their product and replace butter with plant-based oil. When Dr. Puska realized that fruit consumption in Finland was low due to the lack of availability, he moved into action with the resources at hand. Berries grow wild in Finland and were popular during the short summer harvest season. Dr. Puska supported the development of cooperatives and businesses to harvest, freeze, and distribute the berries so they would be available year round. Despite fierce opposition from the dairy industry, Dr. Puska successfully persuaded dairy farmers to set aside pasture land for raising berries. Eventually, dairy subsidies were phased out as farmers began profiting from plant-based food production. Farmers grew berries and rape seed which was used to produce canola oil. Finns used the plant-based oil which is naturally low in saturated fat to replace the artery-clogging butter which had been so prevalent in Finnish cuisine. Promotion of exercise and education on the dangers of smoking were also part of the message Dr. Puska's team delivered to the Finnish populace.

With years of grassroots efforts combined with media exposure and legislative support, the mortality rate from coronary heart disease of men in North Karelia has dropped about 73%. Smoking is down from 52 to 31%. And life expectancy has increased seven years for men and six years for women.

As Michael Greger, MD, points out in the following video, the role of the Finnish government in the dramatic reversal of disease cannot be overlooked.

Yet despite the added advantage government support and legislation provides, the success story of the Finns started at the grassroots level with a populace dissatisfied with the state of its health. Last summer, the movie "PlantPure Nation" launched a grassroots campaign with the goal of bringing the hope-filled message of plant-based nutrition to families and communities across the United States. PlantPure Nation maintains that "millions of people working together at the local level can solve a social problem that industry and government have failed to solve." The lessons from Finland show that as individuals improve their choices, the nation as a whole improves.

The Finns made enormous strides in the state of their health by simply replacing some of the animal products in their diet with plants. Of course, the more we trade out animal products for plant-based nutrition, the more dramatic will be our health results. However, not everyone is ready to jump in to a completely plant-based diet at first. My Starch-Smart® System can be used at four different levels. The entry level I call "Starch-Smartish." Essentially, it advocates what the Finnish population did, adding more plant-based foods and reducing the use of some of the foods highest in saturated fats, like butter. If you have family and friends who want to improve their health but who aren't yet ready to embrace the optimal health offered by a whole-food, plant-based diet free from added oil , why not share with them the story of the Finns and invite them to watch some of the wonderful movies like "PlantPure Nation" and "Forks Over Knives" (available on Netflix as of this writing) that will help them understand the power of plants to change their health outlook. And for daily support, my community at Starch-Smart.com is always available to offer encouragement for those making the transition to a plant-based diet. 

Information for this blog was taken from the following sources which tell the amazing story of the Finns in greater detail:

(1) The Finnish Town that Went on a Diet by Dan Buettner

(2) How to Reduce Heart Disease by 75% from the Pritikin Longevity Center

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