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Low-carb diets raising cholesterol in Finland

Finns’ cholesterol levels have taken an upward swing after decades of decline, indicates fresh research from the National Institute of Health and Welfare (THL).

Valmista voita
Butter lovers' cholesterol is inching upward, says the THL. Image: YLE Keski-Suomi

Health experts at the THL say the ongoing low-carbohydrate trend has led to a tendency in Finland to replace starchy foods with high-fat products that can be bad for the heart.

“Significant factors contributing to the rising levels of cholesterol in Finland are the widespread use of butter-based fat spreads as well as consumer ignorance of their nutritional effects: most butter-based fat spreads contain a lot of saturated fatty acids that raise cholesterol, while polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce cholesterol,” THL researchers said in a statement.

The FINRISK 2012 study shows that between 2007 and 2012 the average total cholesterol level among Finnish men rose from 5.25 millimoles per litre (mmol/L) to 5.34 and among women from 5.15 mmol/L to 5.31. The increase was just under 2 percent for men and 3 percent for women. This is a significant trend as according to international research, a one percent change in population cholesterol levels increases coronary mortality by 2–3 percent. National guidelines call for total cholesterol levels to be below 5 mmol/L.

Good old days

Between 1982 and 2007 there was an uninterrupted decline in cholesterol levels -- and cardiovascular mortality -- thanks to a shift towards healthier diets.

According to the THL, the change in the quality of dietary fats was key: the use of hard fat (saturated fatty acids) declined and vegetable oils (polyunsaturated fatty acids) became more popular. Also, more vegetables, berries and fruit made their way onto Finns' plates.

The FINRISK study has been carried out at five-year intervals since 1972. It is based on random samples from the regions of North Karelia, North Savo, North Ostrobothnia and Kainuu, the cities of Helsinki, Vantaa, Turku and Loimaa as well as five municipalities in the region of Southwest Finland.

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