Background: For decades, the coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality rate has been four or more times higher in Finland than in France despite comparable intakes of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. A potential answer to this paradox is provided by this study of 40 countries and the analyses of other nutrients in the diets besides cholesterol and saturated fat.
Methods and results: CHD death rates for men aged 55 to 64 years were derived from the World Health Organization annual vital statistics. Dietary intakes were gathered from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations database. Forty countries at various levels of economic development and 40 dietary variables were investigated, including a lipid score that combined the intakes of cholesterol and saturated fat (Cholesterol-Saturated Fat Index [CSI]). The CSI was significantly and positively related to CHD mortality in the 40 countries. The countries with low CSIs had low CHD death rates. Countries with high CSIs had a wide range of CHD death rates. France, Finland, and other Western industrialized countries had similar CSIs. After adjusting for cholesterol and saturated fat, milk and many components of milk (butterfat, milk protein, calcium from milk, and riboflavin) and total calcium remained positively related to CHD mortality for all 40 countries. There were differences in the consumption of these foods and nutrients in France and Finland. Milk and butterfat (fat from milk, cream, cheese, and butter) consumption was higher in Finland than in France. The consumption of plant foods, recently shown to be protective against CHD (vegetables and vegetable oils containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids), was greater in France than in Finland.
Conclusions: Over the years, France and Finland, with similar intakes of cholesterol and saturated fat, consistently have had very different CHD mortality rates. This paradox may be explained as follows. Given a high intake of cholesterol and saturated fat, the country in which people also consume more plant foods, including small amounts of liquid vegetable oils, and more vegetables (more antioxidants) had lower rates of CHD mortality. On the other hand, milk and butterfat were associated with increased CHD mortality, possibly through their effects on thrombosis as well as on atherosclerosis.