I Lost 25 Pounds When I Returned Home to Finland — Here’s Why

Jackie Carroll
|
September 2, 2022
Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

I’m an American, but I moved to Finland five years ago with my Finnish husband, where we decided to raise our family. But each and every time I visit family in the United States, I gain weight. And just as predictably, the weight slides off as I return to the healthier diet options and wellness-focused routines in my Finnish life.

I absolutely acknowledge that part of this is due to the difference between “vacation eating” and the more sustainable, daily choices we make when we have a scheduled routine. But my children have never lived in the United States, so when we visit, I want to show them all my favorite places and take them to great restaurants that offer dishes we can’t get back at home. We eat plenty of “American foods” we can’t get in Finland: think onion rings and tacos, for starters (and yes, I’m aware that tacos are Mexican, but try ordering them in Finland, and you’ll understand why I associate them with my life in America). We also never refuse hospitality from our loved ones in the form of (sometimes less-than-healthy) food.

But some of the changes are more about major lifestyle differences in the United States and Finland in general. For instance, in the U.S., we drive a lot more than we walk. I discovered exactly how different the lifestyles were during my last summer trip when things got out of hand. After just 10 weeks stateside, I had gained almost 25 pounds. After that experience, I was ready to pay better attention not only to my own personal choices, but also to the environment and the messaging around health and food experienced by my family. Here are some observations of what I found back home in Ostrobothnia.

In Finland, we spend a lot of time outdoors.

Outdoor activities are embedded in the culture of every stage of life in Finland. Perhaps you have read about Nordic babies napping outside, and I can confirm that the rumors are true: people here more or less expect parents to walk their little ones around in their strollers every single day. In my city, you frequently see bassinets with water-beaded plastic rain covers and parents trudging their all-terrain baby carriers through the snow and ice. Play spaces are strategically placed within walking distance of nearly every neighborhood to offer toddlers and young children the chance to move and practice their gross motor skills.

Outdoor leisure is encouraged at all ages

Once the school year hits, the early childhood education approach in Finland emphasizes free play and physical competence rather than academic skills. For example, the national curriculum calls for all children to master basic swimming skills. My own children also ski, ice skate, and ride their bikes as part of their physical education. While there are units on competitive sports in school, it feels like there is much more focus on learning how to participate in — and hopefully enjoy — active leisure activities. Finnish schools tend not to have sports teams. Instead, we have clubs and subsidized community education classes that encourage adolescents and adults to stay active.

To my American sensibilities, the abundance of safe, free greenspaces and the affordability of extracurricular activities not only makes it easier for me to get outside and move on my own and with my kids — it feels almost magical.

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healthy dinner being passed along a table

Finnish food simply supports better diet choices.

From the high cost of meat to the relative scarcity of heavily processed foods, it’s simply easier to make cleaner choices here. All food is appreciated and there is a strong cultural distaste for wasting food. Hardy crops such as rye, oats, and potatoes make up the backbone of the traditional Finnish diet. Local mushrooms, berries, and fish are all common menu items in the cuisine that leans toward simple, wholesome, seasonal foods. Bonus points for gathering them on a rejuvenating walk through the forest or fishing during a relaxing stay at the summer cottage.

Compared to what I grew up with, I see less reliance on food as a primary comfort — and excess is not a virtue here. Deep-fried, empty calorie-bomb options are just not as popular here as they are in the States. And when restaurants do offer them, it is typically in much smaller portions than most Americans expect. Again, this is not to say some people do not eat poorly here, but that healthier options are widely available and socially promoted.

Healthy eating is also proactively taught in schools. For example, the Finnish view a warm, nutritious lunch as a right of every student and offer them for free from preschool through high school. Students do not bring food from home, and aside from those with severe allergies or who need special diet accommodations, everyone eats the same thing every day. Teachers tend to eat school lunch as well, paying a nominal fee. Generally, students serve themselves from the first grade onward, and they are encouraged to take at least a taste of everything, but not take more than they will eat. The longer I live here, the more impressed I am with this particular detail of socializing kids on how to eat within community and listening to their bodies when it comes to how much of what food they need.

Related: 6 Real School Lunches Nutritionists Actually Pack for Their Kids

As a teacher, I have a bit of an insider’s view: typical school lunches include several raw items, often a green salad with one or two extra options, such as julienned bell peppers or chopped cauliflower. There might be lingonberries or crushed pineapple mixed with shredded cabbage. Although they tend to serve whole-grain pasta and brown rice, Finnish-grown potatoes prepared in a variety of ways are featured at least a couple of days a week. High-fiber, crunchy rye crackers are offered along with every meal. Many students view the soft, dark bread served with soups as a treat.

We eat like locals.

I’ve incorporated a lot of traditional Finnish meals into our home such as split pea soup, smoked salmon on a salad often prepared very simply with dill, tomato, and cucumber, and silver-dollar-sized spinach pancakes (although I don’t usually make the traditional warm egg-sauce to go with — I am happy with some tart berries on the side). And while I haven’t adopted the seemingly national institution of the rye breakfast sandwich, I have learned to enjoy the hard rye crisps as a filling base for toppings such as pickled herring or fresh farmers’ cheese. I have also joined my Nordic children in munching on cucumbers — we easily go through ten English cucumbers a week.

We play healthy games and win healthy prizes.

Naturally, the degree to which these healthy lifestyle opportunities are taken advantage of varies from region to region and family to family, but the intent to provide access for all is clear. While I was writing this story, for instance, two of my kids took part in a three-day orienteering event. Yes, this implies a bit of self-selection in terms of attitudes towards health and exercise; the people who engaged in this volunteered to test their sense of direction out in the forest with only a map to help them out. But I was charmed by the prizes for finishing their route at this event. The first day, it was a little bag of locally-grown tomatoes. On the second day, every finisher received a round of fresh brown bread. On the third day, winners received natural blueberry juice, also locally produced.

But aside from promoting healthy choices with these tokens, the best part was the gusto and good-natured enjoyment of these prizes by participants of all ages. I mean, I just don’t remember tomatoes being the snack of choice after T-ball practice or soccer games. For me, this sums up how and why, in my case, the weight just comes off here compared to the life I live when I return to the United States.

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