For years, the Mediterranean diet has reigned supreme in terms of its health benefits. But this Southern European way of eating may have some dietary competition from its Nordic neighbors. Not only does the new Nordic diet boast many of the same benefits as the Mediterranean diet, it may be better for the planet. With a focus on foods historically eaten in Nordic countries like Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, it’s based on a traditional Nordic diet—but with an emphasis on overall lifestyle and the gastronomic enjoyment of local and seasonal whole foods. (22)
What is the Nordic diet?
The new Nordic diet was developed in 2004 by a panel of food professionals and chefs who sought to define a new regional cuisine that would help to address Scandinavia’s growing obesity rates and unsustainable farming practices. (22) The diet is based upon four core principles: health, gastronomic potential, sustainability, and Nordic identity. (21)
Unlike other popular diets, like paleo or vegan, the Nordic diet doesn’t eliminate any food groups. Instead, it’s a plant forward way of healthy eating that focuses on nutrient-rich, minimally-processed foods, sourced locally when possible. It emphasizes the cultural heritage of nordic countries, but with an eye toward the health and sustainability of both its people and the planet. (21)
The Nordic vs. the Mediterranean diet
The new Nordic diet and the Mediterranean diet have a lot in common. They both focus on fresh, local foods and encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole (rather than refined) grains, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and pulses (legumes). The new Nordic diet and the Mediterranean diet also include low to moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, and red meat. Another similarity? Both diets limit sugars and processed foods. (14)
One key difference between the diets is their primary source of fat. While the Mediterranean diet is known for its focus on extra-virgin olive oil, the Nordic diet promotes the consumption of canola oil. (14) Similar to olive oil, canola oil has been shown to lower total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels while improving insulin sensitivity. (11)(18)(31) However, more than 90% of canola crops in the United States and Canada are genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). (20)(28) If you choose to avoid GMOs, consider trading the canola oil in the new Nordic diet for avocado oil. Like canola oil, avocado oil has a neutral taste but contains considerably more nutrients. (5)
6 ways the Nordic diet can benefit your health
The Nordic diet gets high praise for its healthfulness. Studies show that focusing on nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, like those highlighted in the new Nordic diet, can have beneficial whole-body effects.
1. Fosters better mood and cognition
Three out of the five Scandinavian countries—Finland, Denmark, and Iceland (in that order)—rank as the happiest countries in the world. (30) One reason for this may be due to their diet. In one study of 181 female college students, researchers found that those who closely followed the Nordic diet experienced less stress and anxiety and a significantly better quality of life than those who didn’t. (1)
People adhering to a Nordic diet also appear to have a lower risk of age-related cognitive decline. (19)(29) Studies show that people with Alzheimer’s disease lose up to 60% of the plasmalogen in their brain’s cell membranes. Plasmalogens are phospholipids (a type of fat containing a phosphate group) involved in structuring cell membranes and regulating signals between cells, especially those in the brain and heart. (9) In one randomized clinical trial involving 200 Scandinavian individuals, a healthy Nordic diet increased levels of antioxidant-rich plasmalogens. (16)
2. Improves fitness
Scandinavian people have a reputation for being physically active. (2) The Nordic diet might help people stay active well into their golden years. As part of the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study, Finnish researchers tracked 1,072 people with an average age of 61 years for a decade and found that women eating a Nordic diet had better physical performance and mobility, even in their 70s. The study noted that women most closely adhering to the Nordic diet had 17% better results during a six-minute walking test, 16% improvement completing an arm curl, and 20% better performance during a chair-stand exercise compared to women with the lowest adherence. No such results were found in the men participating in the study. (24)
3. Lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes
There’s some evidence that adopting the Nordic diet can also lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by as much as 25% in women and 38% in men. This may be due to the diet’s focus on fiber- and nutrient-rich whole foods. (15)
4. Promotes weight loss
The Nordic diet might also be good if you’re looking to lose weight. In a review of seven studies involving 774 participants, researchers found that those who followed the new Nordic diet lose weight an average of 4 lbs more than those eating a standard Danish diet. In addition, the diet improved the percentage of body fat and body mass index (BMI). (26) A large, seven-year population-based study suggests that sticking with a Nordic diet long-term might also help maintain weight loss.(12)
5. Reduces inflammation
Low-grade inflammation has been linked to a variety of chronic conditions. One review published in the journal Nutrients found that eating a Nordic diet reduced C-reactive protein—a marker for systemic inflammation. (17) Other studies report that the Nordic diet downregulates the expression of certain genes involved in triggering inflammation, even in those with metabolic syndrome. (13)(23)
6. Supports healthy heart markers
Several studies report that people who most strictly follow a healthy Nordic diet experience a reduction in total and LDL cholesterol levels. (4)(27) During one study at the University of Oslo, Norwegian researchers found that eating a Nordic diet resulted in a 21% drop in LDL levels. (3) These studies have also noted that the Nordic diet may lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. How much? In one six-month study of 147 people with obesity, adhering to the Nordic diet reduced systolic blood pressure by 5.1 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by 3.2 mmHg. (25)
Other clinical findings suggest that long-term adherence to the Nordic diet can lower the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attack in both males and females. (7) It’s also been shown to reduce the odds of stroke in males. (6)(8)
The new Nordic diet meal plan
According to Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, the new Nordic diet should focus on the following:
- Elimination of food additives
- Higher-quality meat—and less of it
- Less food waste
- More fish and seafood
- More food foraged from wild landscapes
- More fruits and vegetables
- More home-cooked food
- More meals based on seasonal produce
- More root vegetables
- More whole grain foods
- Organic produce whenever possible (21)(22)
A day of healthy eating the Nordic way
What do these guidelines look like in real life? Here’s a sample menu for a day’s worth of meals.
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with chopped apple and low-fat milk. Coffee or tea (with no sugar).
- Morning snack: A slice of rye bread topped with cottage cheese, radishes, and red onions.
- Lunch: Vegetable soup and a slice of rye bread. 1 cup of raw vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, and celery sticks.
- Afternoon snack: 1 cup of skyr yogurt with berries.
- Dinner: Baked salmon or chicken with 1 cup of quinoa and 1 cup of broccoli or asparagus. Large green salad dressed with lemon and sprinkled with walnuts.
Did you know? All of the health benefits of following a Nordic diet do come at a cost. According to researchers at the University of Copenhagen, the Nordic diet costs about 25% more than the standard diet eaten by most Scandinavians. (10)
The bottom line
With a focus on flavor, culture, and environmental sustainability, the new Nordic diet boasts a number of health benefits and may result in moderate long-term weight loss. Unlike many popular diets, it doesn’t require counting calories or nutrients and doesn’t restrict any individual food group. Instead, it emphasizes local minimally-processed foods rich in nutrients, which are grown organically and harvested sustainably when possible.
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