From Fat to Finn


In Japanese culture, the martial art of Aikido uses the energy of an attacker to the defender’s advantage.

Try and punch an Aikido master and you effectively throw yourself on the ground.  You do most of work.

Contrary to popular belief, Finland had a massive problem with coronary heart disease.

In fact, Finland had the highest rate of heart disease in the world during the early 1970s.

Finns, especially men, liked to smoke a lot, drink a lot and eat fatty meat. Lots of dairy, salt and bread smeared in butter, washed down with full fat milk.

In Finnish culture, ‘being a man’ was about tough, physical work and that meant eating lots of fatty food to give them energy.

Vegetables were something you gave to rabbits or farm animals. It was laughable that any self-respecting Finn would eat carrots.

So people simply didn’t eat vegetables. At all.

Despite the physical exertion, their unhealthy diet was killing them in droves.

In 1972, Dr Pekka Puska of the National Public Health Institute travelled with his team to Northern Karelia, a very rural, agricultural province in Eastern Finland. It had shown a particularly high incidence of heart disease compared to the average.

In Northern Karelia, people really liked to smoke, drink hard and eat lots of fat.

They reasoned if they could make a change here, they could probably change the whole country.

Most health campaigns just tried to nag people to change by pointing out their mistakes. However, the problem was not one of education.

These people knew they weren’t being very healthy.  They just weren’t bothered about it.

In short, a healthy diet wasn’t relevant so there was little motivation to change.

Dr Puska knew he needed a really bold approach to make a difference.

So he decided to change whole communities in one go and use their culture to his advantage.

He knew that civic pride came before a fall.  Finns – especially the men – were proud and tenacious.

So he pitted communities against each other to reduce their cholesterol levels.

They measured cholesterol in different towns and villages.  Two months later they returned and measured again. The town with the biggest reduction won a collective prize.

There was no need to educate anyone.  They all knew what to do.  Winning was far more important than the embarrassment of eating more veg.

Healthy eating became relevant.

They didn’t stop there.  Farmers were paid to produce high protein meat (not according to fat content as before).  Tobacco advertising was banned nationally. Dairy farmers were given strong incentives to produce low fat milk.  They even managed to get berries grown on a large scale.  Schools started to teach kids about vegetables and why they were amazing.

Gradually, healthier eating became part of the culture.

The effect was extraordinary.

In 30 years, the rate of death from heart disease in men was reduced by at least 65% and deaths from lung cancer were reduced to a similar level. Finnish men can expect to live on average 7 years longer and women 6 years longer compared to before the study began.

So when faced with the overwhelming strength of culture, he used the same cultural strength to his advantage.

The Finnish people did most of the work for him.