Finland’s population increasingly obese, but 2m residents lack expert help | News

An interactive map produced by public health authority THL aims to send an urgent message about a ticking time bomb affecting the future health of Finland’s population.

About 70 percent of men and 60 percent of women in Finland are overweight (BMI 25 or more). Roughly one-quarter of the country’s adults are considered obese (BMI 30 or more), according to the THL. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare’s (THL) new interactive obesity map aims to highlight Finland’s growing problem and send an urgent message about a ticking time bomb affecting the future health of its residents.

Using scientific forecast models, the map shows how many people are likely to be stricken by obesity-related diseases over the next decade if the population continues to gain weight at the same pace as in the past two decades.

According to THL research professor, Tiina Laatikainen, one purpose of the map is to inform municipal and regional decision makers about the fraught situation.

“The map also shows how much those diseases could be reduced if obesity trends were stopped or even reversed,” Laatikainen explained.

The interactive map web page (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (in Finnish) includes projections about diseases including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis, gout, asthma and gallstones. Being significantly overweight increases the risk of such diseases, particularly late in a person’s life.

THL defined obesity using the body mass index (BMI) scale, a measure of a person’s body fat based on their height and weight. A BMI of 30 or over is considered obese, while the index’s limit for being considered overweight is 25.

Socio-economic factors

The map shows that obesity levels vary across different regions. In some areas there is a clearly larger proportion of obese residents than in others. The main contributing factors to higher obesity levels are socio-economic as well as a local populations’ age distribution.

“Obesity is common in North Karelia and Kainuu, among other places, where the socio-economic position is lower than in, for example, the capital region,” Laatikainen told Yle.

Obesity levels also varied between genders.

According to the map model, the highest obesity rate (more than 30 percent of the population) were found to be men in the regions of Satakunta, South Karelia, Central Ostrobothnia and Kanta-Häme

Meanwhile, obesity was most common among women in the regions of South Karelia, Kanta-Häme and North Savo.

In Southwestern Finland, 25.7 percent of both men and women were found to be obese, and according to the projections, those proportions will grow to 29.2 percent and 28.7 percent respectively, in a decade.

The southern region of Uusimaa, home to the capital area, currently has the smallest proportion of overweight residents, with 22.4 percent of men and 12.7 percent of women considered obese. However, according to the forecast, that figure will likely grow by three percentage points for both genders.

Too few nutritional therapists

One obstacle standing in the way of slimming Finland’s residents is a lack of experts across many areas of the country.

Laatikainen said that if a person’s excess weight is starting to pose health risks, it is time to address the matter. However, for many people, body weight is a rather private topic that requires professionalism and adequate time.

But according to Arja Rantala, a nutritional therapist from Vaasa Central Hospital, people who would like professional help in shedding weight have few places to turn.

“Healthcare professionals can tell you that you need to lose weight and how you can take steps to do it, but it is challenging if there’s no concrete way to reach them. No one loses weight with just a doctor’s referral [to a professional],” Rantala said.

The Association of Clinical and Public Health Nutritionists (RTY) has reported that nearly two million people in Finland live in municipalities in which basic public health services do not offer the services of nutritional therapists.

In the entire country there are 72 nutritional therapist posts within basic health care services and 119 such experts in specialised health care.

BMI doesn’t tell whole story

Rantala said that THL’s use of the Body Mass Index is not an ideal way to determine whether a person is overweight, as the scale does not take their musculature or lifestyle into account.

“In many cases, exercise, muscle mass and good physical condition play a much greater role than body weight,” Rantala explained, adding that she hoped health care providers would stop merely encouraging overweight people to burn more calories than they consume.

Instead, both Rantala and the THL’s Laatikainen have called for the use of broader social resources to fight obesity, saying that decision makers should wake up to the known, effective ways of tackling the problem.

Rantala emphasised the importance of prevention and early intervention in combating obesity.

Meanwhile, Laatikainen said other measures such as taxation and restriction of advertising of unhealthy foods and developing health-promoting exercise programmes.

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