Tuesday. 30.05.2023

Beware of heavy meals and Christmas sweets: more than half of Finns have high cholesterol

Around 55% of the Finnish population have a total cholesterol level above the recommended. And 41% of men and 9% of women are at high risk of experiencing an acute cardiovascular event, according to a study by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare.


Christmas is usually the time to eat a lot, and not precisely in the healthiest way. And in Finland, a well developed country where all kinds of delicacies abound in shops and supermarkets, it is worth not forgetting some recommendations so that the excess of sweets or fats on these special dates does not harm health.

Cholesterol levels among Finns are very high. Around 55% of the Finnish population have a total cholesterol level above the recommended 5 mmol/l.

The most important factors affecting cholesterol levels are the amount and quantity of fat they consume as part of their diet. One third of all Finns eat more fats than is recommended. While the amount of hard saturated fats consumed has not increased, more than 90% of the Finnish people exceed the recommended intake, which equates to less than 10% of the total daily energy.

These are the findings of the FinHealth 2017 study, recently published by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitos), that examined the factors affecting the health and well being of all adults living in Finland.

The good news is that cholesterol levels have fallen slightly after the increase seen in 2007-2012. High cholesterol is one of the most significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

According to the FinHealth 2017 study, almost 70% of 30–74 year old myocardial infarction patients and patients with coronary heart disease were on cholesterol medication.

The study also revealed that 41% of men and 9% of women were at high risk (more than 10% probability) of experiencing an acute cardiovascular event within the next ten years. Of these men and women, more than 60% had a total cholesterol level of 5 mmol/l or higher.

Changes in nutrition required

The National Institute for Health and Welfare emphasized that Finnish cholesterol levels are still relatively high, although they have fallen significantly since the late 1970s. Having previously been in long-term decline, the total intake of fat, especially saturated fatty acids, started to rise after 2007. At that time, there was a lively debate about a low-carbohydrate diet. 

Effective prevention of heart disease requires changes in the diet at the population level, which in practice means a reduction in hard or saturated fats and an increase in soft or polyunsaturated fats.

“The saturated fat content of the population level energy intake should not exceed 10% of the total energy. On top of people's individual dietary choices, this will require major production changes in the agricultural and food industries,” says Liisa Valsta, Research Manager at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.

In terms of treating men with heart disease, the proportion of those on medication intended to lower fat levels is already quite good. However, there is still scope to increase the amount of cholesterol medication being prescribed, especially in women. 

“Particular attention should be paid to those at high risk of illness, in other words, those who have multiple risk factors for heart disease. Too many of them have high cholesterol. Both nutritional advice and medication should be made more effective,” says Research Professor Tiina Laatikainen.

Reducing cardiovascular mortality by 25%

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set an international target of a 25% reduction in cardiovascular mortality by 2025. One of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cholesterol levels, are particularly raised by high levels of saturated fat. The WHO recommends population monitoring of the proportion of saturated fat in energy intake and of those whose cholesterol level is above the recommended 5 mmol/l.

The WHO also aims to ensure that as many people at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease as possible receive lifestyle counselling and the necessary medical treatment.

Nine global targets for 2025, current midway evaluations of Finland’s status

The World Health Organization (WHO) published its Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases in 2013. The programme includes proposals on health policy and practical action aimed at reaching nine targets by 2025. 

The goals apply to the following topics: mortality from endemic diseases, alcohol, exercise, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, ability to function, and mental health. Achieving the targets is tracked using 25 indicators.

THL is reporting on the possibilities and preconditions for achieving the WHO goals in Finland and will publish interim results on how well the targets have been reached.

Beware of heavy meals and Christmas sweets: more than half of Finns have high cholesterol