On Nutrition

The Mediterranean diet gets a lot of credit for preventing chronic disease — supported by countless research studies. But what if you want a framework to guide your eating and support your health, but Mediterranean-type foods just don’t float your boat? Consider the Nordic diet.

A team of scientists, nutritionists and chefs designed the “new” Nordic diet in 2004 to improve public health and promote a culinary revival of seasonal Nordic ingredients from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. While this diet doesn’t hew strictly to the Nordic diet of centuries past, it does focus on seasonal, sustainable, nutritious foods that are local to the region.

Research on the Mediterranean diet is more robust than research on the Nordic diet, but a 2017 research review found that the Nordic diet — with its high-quality, high-fiber carbs and heart-healthy omega-3 fat — can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure, two risk factors for cardiovascular disease. A 2019 review found that following the Nordic diet was associated with reduced markers of chronic, low-grade inflammation. This type of inflammation has been linked to a number of chronic diseases.

One constant in most Nordic diet research — and writings by the diet’s architects — has been the idea that the diet’s health benefits came via weight loss. (This is common in nutrition and health research in general.) However, a new study from the University of Copenhagen found that the Nordic diet has positive health benefits without weight loss. The study enrolled 200 people aged 50 or older with body mass indexes in the “overweight” or “obese” ranges and increased risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Half were randomly assigned to eat a Nordic diet and the other half maintained their usual diet. After six months, the Nordic diet group had lower cholesterol levels and healthier blood sugar levels, compared to the usual diet control group — without any weight loss.

The Nordic diet includes vegetables and fruits that grow well in cold climates, such as root vegetables, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and cauliflower, dark leafy greens, local berries and apples. The primary grains are barley, oats, rye and spelt, eaten cooked whole or baked into dense breads such as pumpernickel or fermented sourdough. Salmon and other fatty fish are significant protein sources, rounded out by low-fat dairy foods (especially skyr, the Scandinavian equivalent of Greek yogurt), lean meat, skinless poultry, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils). Canola, which is suited to cold climates, is the primary cooking oil. Fermented foods are deeply traditional and remain part of the modern Nordic diet — as does an active lifestyle. If this sounds appealing, here are a few tips for getting started:

  • Base your plate on vegetables — the Nordic plate is half vegetables, with the rest split between high-fiber carbs and quality protein. Frozen produce is an affordable alternative to fresh.
  • Make most (or all) of your grains whole. This provides more fiber and nutrients.
  • Aim for three fish meals per week. Canned tuna and sardines are practical and affordable options if fresh or frozen aren’t options.
  • Include fermented foods. This includes dairy (skyr, yogurt and kefir), bread (sourdough) and vegetables (pickles and sauerkraut).
  • Swap in olive oil if you prefer it. Both canola and olive oil are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but olive oil has the added benefits of polyphenols, which have antioxidant benefits.
  • Fit more physical activity in your day, both planned exercise and lifestyle activity, such as gardening or walking or bicycling as transportation.