Another year, another diet… or so it seems. In recent years, you’ve likely seen the F-Factor diet, the GOLO diet, and the carnivore diet circulating — just to name a few. And if you keep tabs on the latest diet trends, odds are you’ve heard of the Nordic diet, aka the Scandinavian diet. Based on foods that are found in (you guessed it) Nordic countries, the eating plan is often compared to the popular Mediterranean diet in style and benefits. But what does the Nordic diet involve — and is it healthy? Ahead, learn more about the Nordic diet, according to registered dietitians.
What Is the Nordic Diet?
The Nordic diet focuses on seasonal, local, organic, and sustainably sourced whole foods that are traditionally eaten in the Nordic region, says Valerie Agyeman, RD, founder of Flourish Heights. This includes five countries: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden.
The Nordic diet was developed in 2004 by Claus Meyer, a chef and food entrepreneur, according to a 2016 article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture. It was based on the idea of popularising Nordic cuisine (penned “New Nordic cuisine” by Meyer) around the world — which, considering the recent rise in recognition of the Nordic diet, has seemingly worked. (Case in point: The Nordic diet scored ninth place out of 39 in US News & World Report‘s list of best diets for 2021. Previously, it had only made it to the top of the publication’s best plant-based diets lists.) The eating style also aims to address the rising prevalence of obesity in the Nordic region while emphasising sustainable food production, according to an article by Meyer and his colleagues in Cambridge University Press.
But why the sudden popularity? There are several possible reasons, says registered dietitian Victoria Whittington, RD. For starters, there’s the usual cycle of fad diets. “There’s always a new diet on the scene, and it’s hard for people to decide which one is right for them,” explains Whittington. This can prompt folks to jump on the bandwagon any time a new diet pops up. Also, “society is shifting its focus to more sustainable practices in many areas of life, and the Nordic diet aligns with that value,” she adds. Specifically, the sustainability aspect stems from the focus on local foods, which are generally environmentally friendly because they don’t have to travel long distances to get to your plate. (Meanwhile, most other fad diets only indicate what foods should be eaten, not where they come from.)
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Foods to Eat and Avoid On a Nordic Diet
ICYMI above, the Nordic diet includes sustainable, whole foods traditionally eaten in, yup, Nordic countries. And while there’s some variation within the region — for example, folks in Iceland and Norway tend to eat more fish than those in other Nordic countries, according to a 2019 scientific review — the eating patterns are generally the same.
So, what’s on a Nordic diet menu? It emphasises whole grains (eg barley, rye, and oats), fruits, vegetables, legumes (aka beans and peas), fatty fish (think: salmon and herring), low-fat dairy, and canola oil, according to Agyeman. The diet is particularly rich in unsaturated (“good”) fats, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which primarily come from fatty fish and canola oil.
In the fruit category, berries reign supreme. The diet favours berries that are local to the Nordic region, such as strawberries, lingonberries (aka mountain cranberries), and bilberries (aka European blueberries), according to a 2019 article in the journal Nutrients. Meanwhile, in the veggie category, cruciferous and root vegetables (e.g. cabbage, carrots, potatoes) are top of mind, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
The Nordic diet also calls for moderate amounts of “eggs, cheese, yoghurt, and game meats [such as] rabbit, pheasant, wild duck, venison, [and] bison,” says Whittington. (ICYDK, game meats are wild animals and birds, which tend to be leaner than domestic farm animals such as cows or pigs, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.) The diet includes even smaller amounts of red meats (such as beef or pork) and foods high in saturated fat (e.g. butter), adds Whittington, while processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, and high-salt foods are avoided as much as possible.
Pros of the Nordic Diet
As a fairly new diet, the Nordic diet is still being studied by researchers. And while it hasn’t been analysed as much as the Mediterranean diet, a similar eating plan that started gaining attention in the 1950s, the research that has been done on the Nordic diet so far is generally promising.
With plant foods at the core of the Nordic diet, this eating style may offer similar benefits to plant-based eating styles such as vegan and vegetarian diets. Eating more plants (and less meat) is associated with a lower risk of chronic conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, according to the American Heart Association.
The diet’s heart-health benefits are especially noteworthy. Specifically, its focus on plant foods — paired with minimal added sugar, salt, and saturated fat — may reduce the risk of high blood pressure by reducing water retention and preventing atherosclerosis, the development of plaque in the arteries, says Agyeman. (FYI, high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In fact, this benefit was noted in a 2016 scientific review, which found that the Nordic diet can help lower blood pressure due to its focus on berries. (Berries are rich in polyphenols, plant compounds that can help reduce blood pressure.) A 2014 study also found that the Nordic diet promoted weight loss in people with obesity, which in turn helped reduce blood pressure.
The Nordic diet may also manage high cholesterol, another risk factor for heart disease. “The high doses of dietary fibre in this eating plan (from fruits, vegetables, and grains) can bind to cholesterol molecules and prevent them from being absorbed, lowering LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels in the blood,” explains Agyeman. What’s more, the diet favours fatty fish, which is “a great source of omega-3 fatty acids,” notes Agyeman. Omega-3s can help lower your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides — a type of fat in the blood that, in excess, can thicken the walls of your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease.
But wait, there’s more: The diet might decrease low-grade inflammation or chronic inflammation. This is key because inflammation plays a role in the development of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As Whittington points out, the Nordic diet emphasises anti-inflammatory foods (think: fruits and vegetables) and limits foods that trigger inflammation (looking at you, processed foods). However, a 2019 scientific review notes that there’s minimal research on the anti-inflammatory properties of the diet RN, so more studies are needed to confirm the diet’s true anti-inflammatory potential.
As for its effect on weight loss or maintenance? Though the Nordic diet was partly created to address obesity, there’s not yet much research studying the link. The research that is available, however, suggests potential benefits. For example, in the aforementioned 2014 study of people with obesity, those who followed the Nordic diet lost more weight than those who followed an “average Danish diet,” which is characterised by refined grains, meat, processed foods, and low-fibre vegetables. A 2018 study found similar results, noting that people who adhered to the Nordic diet for seven years experienced less weight gain than those who didn’t. Again, more research is needed to understand the diet’s effect, if any, on weight loss and maintenance.
TL;DR — The Nordic diet may protect your heart by managing high blood pressure and cholesterol. It might also potentially support weight loss, reduce inflammation, and prevent type 2 diabetes, but more research is necessary.
Beyond its health benefits, the Nordic diet also has a non-restrictive and adaptable structure. This means “you can easily accommodate other dietary preferences such as gluten-free, dairy-free, or vegan,” notes Agyeman. Translation: You won’t necessarily need to eliminate any specific food groups or abide by a super strict regimen when trying the Nordic diet — both of which Whittington considers to be essential for maintaining a “sustainable” and successful diet. Hello, flexibility!
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Cons of the Nordic Diet
Despite its roster of potential health benefits, the Nordic diet (like all diets) isn’t a one-size-fits-all eating plan. “The main limitations of this diet are time and cost,” explains Agyeman. “The Nordic diet avoids processed [and therefore, packaged] foods, so the majority of meals and snacks should be primarily made at home.” This calls for more time and dedication to prepare meals, which can be inconvenient for some people (because… life). Plus, some folks may not be able to afford or access organic, locally sourced ingredients, which tend to be more expensive than their big-box supermarket counterparts. (After all, the latter is typically produced in larger quantities by large-scale farms, ultimately allowing for lower price tags.)
There’s also the issue of finding some traditional Nordic ingredients depending on your local food culture. For example, the diet includes a moderate intake of game meats such as rabbit and pheasant, but these aren’t always, if ever, stocked at your nearby Whole Foods. And if you’re not living in Scandinavia, the sustainability aspect of eating locally sourced foods becomes somewhat null and void. Think: If you have lingonberries flown in from across the pond — or even elk from states across the country (hey, Colorado) — you’re not really doing the environment any favours. But you can still take a page out of the Nordic diet book and prioritise sustainability by swapping in foods that you can get fresh and nearby — even if they’re not technically part of Nordic cuisine.
So, you might not be able to follow the diet to a tee, but you’ll still be able to reap the benefits. Remember, “the Nordic diet focuses on sustainable, whole foods and limits foods that are more processed,” says Whittington. “Even if you can’t include some foods due to lack of availability, eating a diet high in fresh, whole foods can lead to significant health benefits anyway.”
Nordic Diet vs. Mediterranean Diet
With “more similarities than differences,” according to a 2021 article, the Nordic and Mediterranean diets are often compared to one another. Indeed, in terms of foods, there’s actually not much of a difference, says Agyeman. “The Nordic diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, a plant-based way of eating that focuses on the traditional foods and cooking methods of Greece, Italy, and other countries of the Mediterranean,” she explains. Like the Nordic diet, the Mediterranean diet highlights plant-based eating by emphasising fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, according to the AHA. It also includes fatty fish and low-fat dairy while minimising sweets, added sugars, and super processed foods.
The main difference between the two eating plans is that the Mediterranean diet favours olive oil, while the Nordic diet favours canola (rapeseed) oil, according to Agyeman. “Both oils are plant-based and contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids,” aka heart-friendly anti-inflammatory fats, explains Whittington. But here’s the catch: Despite its high omega-3 fat content, canola oil has more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s, according to a 2018 article. Omega-6s are also beneficial for the heart, but the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is what matters. A high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can increase inflammation, while a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio reduces it, according to a 2018 article.
Does that mean omega-6 fats — and canola oil — are bad news? Not necessarily. It comes down to maintaining an ideal balance of fatty acids, according to Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This means canola oil has a place in a healthy diet, so long the rest of your food provides a generous serving of omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna).
In terms of benefits, researchers are still learning how the Nordic diet stacks up against the Mediterranean diet. A 2021 scientific review notes that the Nordic diet could be just as beneficial for the heart as the Mediterranean diet, but more research is needed. Until then, the Mediterranean diet currently owns the title as one of the best diets for heart health, according to the AHA.
The Bottom Line
The Nordic diet encompasses the guidelines for a wholesome and balanced eating routine, says Agyeman. “[It’s] a great way to incorporate more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats into your day. Not to mention, it’s a really cool way to learn about Nordic culture,” she adds.
That said, it may help to approach the Nordic diet as a gateway to healthy eating, rather than a prescriptive eating plan. After all, eating more plants and less processed food isn’t exclusive to the Nordic diet; it’s a feature of generally healthy eating. It’s also a good idea to chat with your doc or registered dietitian before trying any new diet, including the Nordic diet.
This story first appeared on www.shape.com
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