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27 OCTOBER– 2 NOVEMBER 2011
Viewpoints are commentaries written by experts and authorities about specific topics. You can submit your articles to email@example.com. Articles should be at least 5,000 characters-with-spaces long (maximum length 10,000). Helsinki Times reserves the right to accept or reject submissions, as well as to edit or shorten the text. The opinions expressed in this section are the writers’ own and do not represent the official policy of the Helsinki Times.
Eliot Baker is an American journalist living in Pori with his family. He works as a freelance writer and has his own proofreading and science-and-educationcentred writing business. He has a Master’s in Science Journalism from Boston University. His by-line has appeared in several American media outlets.
Finland must guard against further obesity
The Nordic stereotype of the body beautiful is slowly filling out with age and Finns must not be complacent about a serious and growing public-health problem, writes Eliot Baker.
I WAS splashing in the kneehigh water lapping against the sugary sand of Pori’s Yyteri beach when I glanced down at my belly, a little ashamed at how unprepared I was for the scorching-hot summer. I surveyed my fellow beach-goers’ mid-sections to see how far behind the eight ball I actually was, conscious of the fact that I was representing America: “Home of the Gluttonous, Land of the Fat.” BUT AS ONE pale and pudgy sun-worshiper after another marched from the ice-cream stand into the water around me – young and old, male and female – I realised something surprising, and it should have been obvious: Finland is getting fatter. This is partly a relief for me because Finns are no longer as quick as they once were to ridicule my fellow Americans about the ankle fat swelling their white socks. But it’s bad because I have chosen to raise my kids here, a country where onethird of pre-schoolers are now overweight, according to recent reports in the Helsinki Times.
nomat. The ﬁnancial and human toll of obesity across the EU consumes 2-8 per cent of total healthcare costs (Finland is at the low end of that range) and accounts for 10-13 per cent of deaths, according to WHO estimates.
tively. Just over 15 per cent of Finnish adults are obese, putting Finland in the middle of the EU pack but about 50 per cent more obese than its Nordic neighbours.
AS AN American health writer and a former fat kid, I have a keen eye for signs of globesity. A decade ago, when I lived in Pori for a year, Finns didn’t look this portly. Fastforward 10 years. Today’s Finland reminds me of 1980s America, when it was heavy but not gargantuan. I’m back in Pori with my dual-citizen
Type II diabetes – of whom the Finnish Diabetes Association believes 5–10 per cent per year could go on to develop the disorder. Diabetes treatment accounts for about one-third of obesityrelated healthcare costs.
I JUST CAN’T ﬁgure out why waistlines here are expanding and why Finland is one of the fattest nations in Europe – and markedly plumper than its Nordic neighbours. Obesity has been strongly linked in the US to class-driven discrepancies in wealth, education, culture and healthcare access, as well as heavy industry lobbying of high-fructose corn syrup since the early 1980s. Moreover, Americans often complain that there are no urban sidewalks or bike paths and too little safe, usable public space for daily exercise. BUT THOSE issues did not turn up in a 2006 study on obesity examining Finland and Denmark, using broad comparisons with the US, which was published in the European Journal of Public Health. Obesity rates were the same in Finland across education levels, with only slight differences between urban and rural populations. Healthcare access is a non-issue here. There are adequate sporting facilities in every town, no matter how rural. And being a largely homogenous European population, Finns aren’t at a genetic disadvantage in relation to obesity, as some ethnicities appear to be. And it’s not like there’s dramatically less light here than in Sweden or Norway, as light and sleep rhythms have a link to weight gain. IS IT something that Finns eat? Probably not, since the traditional fare is heavy on
previous success in battling heart disease and obesity, Finland still has a long road to Wellsville. According to 2010 estimates from the WHO database, a staggering 67.1 per cent of adult Finnish men and 54 per cent of adult Finnish wom-
Just over 15 per cent of Finnish adults are obese, putting Finland in the middle of the EU pack but about 50 per cent more obese than its Nordic neighbours.
en have a Body Mass Indexes (BMI) that is ranked as overweight – at BMI 25. This is equal to a 180 cm man weighing 81 kg (without considering his muscle mass and body fat); at 100 kg he would enter the ﬁrst stage of obesity, with a BMI of 30.
grains, dairy, ﬁsh and meat – just as it is throughout Scandinavia. And I’m not inclined to harp on the Hesburgers and McDonald’s on every corner, because fast food is more of a moderately priced entertainment experience for young people in Finland, whereas in America people of less means tend to depend on McDonald’s as a cheap and easy dietary staple. Still, I listen attentively when my friends in Pori recall when the ﬁrst fast-food hamburger stand popped up in the early 1990s, coinciding with the initial wave of burger joints in surrounding cities. McDonald’s opened its ﬁrst Finnish restaurant in 1984 and has 84 restaurants here today. Hesburger mushroomed from 12 restaurants in 1992 to 247 restaurants today.
OR ARE TV
vironments; less smoking; prescription medications; increase in certain ethnic distributions; older mothers having children; environmental factors that affected prior generations and were passed down in the uterus; obesity is inherited, and big people are reproducing more; and ﬁnally, that mating habits favour being overweight, which is passed down genetically or socially to offspring.
THERE’S a tendency to blame the individual in this epidemic. But perhaps we are less in control of ourselves than we think. A widely publicised Harvard study published in 2007 looking at social-networking theory indicated that obesity is essentially contagious, predicted by your positioning among other overweight people within your social network. This research has shown that the same goes for your level of happiness and health. So if you’re heavy and you know it, thank your friends... or your family, as recent Finnish research suggests. A 2011 study from the University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio, found that children of overweight parents were far more likely to become overweight themselves by the age of 16.
trying to hurt Finns’ feelings. An American calling you fat is like a Greek calling you ﬁnancially irresponsible. But Helsinki, we have a problem. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls it “globesity” – the global obesity pandemic – and they deem it one of the greatest public-health challenges facing the developed world. In Finland, KELA doled out a total of €260 million in obesity-related costs in 2006, while also investing €800,000 in weight-loss programmes – more than it did for smoking-related illnesses, according to a January 2007 article in Helsingin SaI AM NOT
has exploded over the last two decades, hitting everywhere from India and Malta to Finland and the US, where more than one-third of adults and 17 per cent of children are not merely overweight, but obese. The obesity rates in the US have rung up a staggering $147 billion (€108 billion) yearly medical bill, consuming 12 per cent of the total healthcare budget, according to 2008 estimates from the US government’s Center for Disease Control. Meanwhile, obesity rates in Europe have tripled over the last two decades, according to the WHO. The UK’s 24 per cent obesity rate trails only the US and Malta globally, at 33 and 30 per cent respec-
family, and we’re amazed by the general change in body shape that has taken place on the streets, in schools and in the workplace. Being pleasantly plump now looks normal and being extremely overweight – even morbidly obese – no longer seems taboo. And my Finnish friends say that it’s like a different world from two decades ago.
and video games keeping Finns glued to their seats? Most Finns can remember in the early 1990s when cable TV was not terribly popular and regular Finnish TV consisted of only three channels. A 2005 study from Tampere published in the International Journal of Obesity found no relation between overweight teenagers and their video game use, but did ﬁnd that girls were more likely to be overweight if they spent 1-4 hours in front of the TV, or surﬁng the internet. it turns out that larger forces may be at work in globesity than unused gym memberships and having a sweet tooth. As bizarre as it sounds, several species of wild and domestic animals are now exhibiting weight gain as well, even when controlling for human over-feeding.
IT IS IMPORTANT
struggles mightily with diabetes, a problem that is exacerbated by excess body fat. Rates of Type I diabetes, the kind with a genetic underpinning that begins in childhood, are higher here than in any other country, affecting 40,000 Finns. Rates of Type II diabetes, the kind brought on in adulthood, often through poor diet, are also high at 250,000 diagnosed and an estimated additional 200,000 undiagnosed cases. But what’s really worrisome are the estimated half-million Finns with impaired glucose tolerance – which can be triggered by obesity into
A MAJOR 2006 narrative review of the obesity pandemic published in the International Journal of Obesity lays out 10 potential factors working together or independently: sleep debt; endocrine disruption; warmer man-made living en-
to note that Finland has successfully tackled public-health issues in the past. A 2004 BBC report correctly sums up how, in the 1970s, Finland had the highest rate of coronary heart disease and in the 1980s, its obesity rates were double those of the UK. While the UK subsequently dived head ﬁrst into the basket of chips, Finland curbed its health problems with aggressive programmes promoting healthy eating, while consumer demand nudged supermarkets into stocking their shelves with items lower in fat and salt. It is unclear if those lessons from past successes will work in today’s struggle with obesity.
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