A Finnish public health crusade launched in the early 1970’s might just offer the key to lasting weight loss and optimal health.
The gist? Apologies to the Tea Party movement, but government intervention and policy seems to have done the trick.
In the early seventies, death by heart attack was all too common among Finns, particularly in an area of the Scandinavian country known as North Karelia. Despite the fact that most North Karelians worked physically demanding jobs like logging and farming, a reliance on full-fat dairy, salt and cigarettes had resulted in the world’s highest rate of heart disease mortality.
Enough was enough for the residents of the region, and North Karelians rallied their government to help address this pressing health crisis.
The solution materialized as the North Karelia Project, which was led by an ambitious young Finn by the name of Pekka Puska. Puska and his colleagues aimed to wage a three-pronged campaign– cut smoking rates, lower hypertension and reduce cholesterol.
Project members hit the ground running, speaking at town meetings, health centers and schools, as well as handing out informational pamphlets at supermarkets. Their plea for the people of North Karelia to drink skim milk and consume more fruits and vegetables was at first poorly received, but the ever-pragmatic Finns soon warmed to the idea.
Positive reinforcement (think workplace and town-wide “Biggest Loser” competitions) and a hugely popular TV series featuring Finns looking to improve their health led to greater and greater successes. The project went national in 1977 and, more than thirty years later, the Finnish people enjoy one of the highest standards of health worldwide.
Changing the eating and wellness habits of an entire (albeit tiny) country was not easy, but Puska et al. worked as best they could within existing infrastructure. The group helped pass food-labeling laws, and successfully overhauled the national school-lunch program. Farmers were offered subsidies to grow rapeseed (canola), and Finns encouraged to re-embrace national pastimes like berry picking that had long fallen by the wayside. Puska also helped to make Finnish cities “free, convenient outdoor gyms,” thereby making it fun and easy for Finns to get their heart rate going.
Despite the project’s successes, the Project’s fight is far from over. Vigilance is ever important as fast food and other “Western” temptations reach the country. Regardless, the rapid pace with which the North Karelia Project was able to reverse a dire public health crisis suggests that government collaboration and hard work are enough to change a nation’s collective wellbeing.