The New Science Of The (Old) Nordic Diet
Several studies have shown that the Nordic diet can cause weight loss, reduce inflammation, and improve metabolic syndrome.
Obesity rates in Nordic countries are significantly lower than in the U.S., and the traditional, commonly eaten Nordic foods appear to be the reason.
Find out what the science says about the Nordic diet health benefits. Learn what foods you should eat on the New Nordic diet, to to lose weight, improve your lipid profile, and reduce inflammation.
(Image above: Bergen, Norway)
What is The Nordic Diet?
Back in 2004, a team of nutritionists and scientists teamed up with Danish chefs to come up with a diet plan that embraced a healthier way of eating based on local, seasonal, and sustainable foods.
Because they were in a Nordic country, they focused on the foods and cuisine local to their region. The result of their efforts is now called the Nordic Diet, or New Nordic Diet.
The Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland all have harsh winters and limited arable land.
Their traditional cuisines include wild game like elk or reindeer and locally caught fish. For vegetation, root vegetables and berries are quite common.
The New Nordic Diet embraces this traditional cuisine while including other foods common to these Nordic regions.
It contains less sugar, less fat, twice the fiber and twice the seafood of the average Western diet, making it a great alternative to standard diets.
Benefits of The Nordic Diet
Scientists have studied the Nordic diet and determined that its results are quite similar to those of the Mediterranean Diet.
Nordic diet followers had lower blood cholesterol levels, lower inflammation levels, lower blood pressure and measurable weight loss as compared to those on American diets.
In addition to improving your overall well being, the Nordic diet can help you lose weight.
One weight loss study conducted in Denmark found that those that followed the New Nordic Diet plan lost three times the weight of those who followed a typical Danish diet.
In a similar 6-week long study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, the Nordic diet group lost significantly more than those following a standard diet.
A new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition examined the association between the healthy Nordic diet and long-term changes in measures such as weight, BMI, and waist circumference.
The study focused on the adherence to Nordic diet not only at the start of the study but also sustained adherence throughout the seven-year-long follow-up.
The researchers also aimed to examine the consistency between the self-reported and nurse-measured values of height, weight, and waist circumference.
The study included 5024 participants from Finland, aged between 25-75 years. One-third of the participants were evaluated by health examination and food frequency questionnaires. The rest of the participants were sent a measuring tape with instructions to measure height, weight, and waist circumference and a food frequency questionnaire.
The Baltic Sea Diet Score (BSDS), a tool for assessing healthy eating in Nordic countries, was used to determine the level of adherence of participants to the Nordic diet. The scores ranged from 0-25, with higher scores indicating a greater adherence to the healthy Nordic diet by the participants.
Statistical analysis was then used to evaluate the association between diet scores at the start of the study and during the follow-up period with the changes in weight, BMI, and waist circumference.
Long Term Weight Maintenance
The results showed that a lower Nordic diet adherence score at the start of the study was associated with a greater increase in weight, BMI, and waist circumference.
In perspective, the participants who had a higher adherence to the Nordic diet were able to either lose weight or maintain their weight over the follow-up period.
The researchers also observed better weight maintenance or reduced weight and BMI of the participants who increased the adherence to Nordic diet during the follow-up period. The results showed no association between increased adherence to the Nordic diet and change in waist circumference.
Self-Reported and Clinically Measured Results
The researchers observed high agreement between the height, weight, and BMI values measured by the nurse with those self-reported by the participants, thus implying that both the values used for analysis were reliable and did not need correction.
In addition to the strong agreement between the nurse-measured and self-reported values, other strengths of this study include a high participation rate of 82% and a sample of participants from the general population of Finland.
The researchers concluded that adherence to the Nordic diet is key in the long-term weight maintenance.
In addition to a high adherence at the start of the study, an increased adherence during the 7-year follow up promoted long-term weight maintenance in this study.
In line with past research, a Nordic diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and nuts, and no processed foods is an effective eating pattern to prevent weight gain.
The Nordic diet was was also found found to reduce the expression of inflammation-associated genes in adipose tissue.
In overweight adults recruited from 3 Nordic SYSDIET centers, the expression of inflammation-associated genes was found to be reduced without weight loss. The unfavorable health effects of being overweight are thought to be caused by an inflammatory state in adipose tissue.
The study entitled “Healthy Nordic diet down regulates the expression of genes involved in inflammation in subcutaneous adipose tissue in individuals with features of the metabolic syndrome”, was recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Evidence from a recent pan-Nordic randomized dietary intervention study (Systems Biology in Controlled Dietary Interventions and Cohort Studies) (SYSDIET) showed that a healthy Nordic diet (ND) brings beneficial health effects similar to the ones found in Mediterranean diets.
The Nordic Diet includes whole-grain cereal products; local berries, fruits, and vegetables; fish; low-fat or fat-free milk products; rapeseed oil; and vegetable oil–based margarines.
All these foods have been shown to have beneficial effects on one’s health and may potentially have an effect on adipose tissue metabolism.
In order to explore how a healthy Nordic diet (ND) impacts gene expression in abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT) and if changes in gene expression are associated with health effects, Marjukka Kolehmainen from the University of Eastern Finland, Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition in Finland and colleagues randomized 56 obese adults.
For 18 to 24 weeks, half of the patients followed a dietary regimen involving whole grain products, vegetables, root vegetables, berries, fruit, low-fat dairy products, rapeseed oil and three servings of fish per week.
The other half of the participants followed a regimen of low-fiber grain products, butter-based spreads, with limited fish intake. Adipose tissue was collected at baseline and at follow-up, and transcriptomics (gene RNA) analyses were conducted on these tissues in order to assess gene expression.
Results from this study showed that a total of 128 genes were differently expressed in the subcutaneous adipose tissue of the two study groups.
The group under the ND diet presented less inflammation-associated genes than the group under a standard diet.
Based on these findings, researchers concluded that a healthy Nordic diet is able to reduce inflammatory gene expression in adipose (fat) tissue, independent of body weight change.
One of the biggest benefits of the Nordic Diet is better heart health, and an improvement in metabolic syndrome markers.
In a 166-person study in the Journal of Internal Medicine, researchers asked 96 participants to follow a healthy Nordic Diet and 70 to eat normally. By the end of the 18 to 24 week trial, the dieting participants showed significant health improvements.
“We have shown that the Nordic Diet results in lower risk of cardiovascular diseases,” says Uusitupa, one of the study authors, “It decreases [the ratio of] LDL-cholesterol to HDL-cholesterol — that’s ‘bad’ cholesterol to ‘good’ cholesterol and lowers blood pressure.”
The Nordic Way of Eating
Think of the Nordic Diet as a successor to the wildly popular Mediterranean diet — just coming from a different part of the world.
“A healthy Nordic diet…is about the same as the Mediterranean diet on the nutrient level, but of course the selection of food is different,” says Dr. Matti Uusitupa, MD, PhD, and former leader of the Nordic Center of Excellence’s SYSDIET Project.
“The Nordic diet is rooted in tradition back to the Vikings and is comprised of natural fresh foods consumed by residents of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland,” explains Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist and nutrition and weight loss expert. “It consists of high amounts of nutrient rich, single foods with vegetables being the corner stone of this diet, and meats only filling the left over space.
Nordic vegetables are cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, roots and peas.
Fish varieties include salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and dried salty cod.
Fruits do not grow abundantly in the region; therefore, berries tend to be the primary source of fruit.
The grains allowed are the Nordic type of rye, wholegrain, barley and oats.
Fermented fish and dairy add to the epicurean experience.
Nordic Diet Food List :
- Root vegetables, such as turnips, beets, carrots, potatoes
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
- Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard
- Beans and legumes such as brown beans, split peas
- Berries, such as lingonberries, bilberries
- Pears and apples
- Whole grains, such as rye, oats, barley
- Fish, such as salmon and herring
- Wild meat, such as elk
- Other plant foods, such as seaweed, moss, mushrooms, nettles
- Healthy fats, such as canola oil
- Herbs, including dill, fennel and chives
Along with these ingredients, a big part of the Nordic Diet is choosing organic versions when possible, eating responsibly caught fish, limiting processed and packaged foods, and purchasing local and seasonal foods.
Red Meat – Choose Lean
While the Nordic diet emphasizes seafood, it does incorporate red meats to an extent.
“Definitely some beef dishes, but also game meats that we don’t eat as much of here,” Jamie Shifley, a registered dietitian and health coach. “You may see larger animals like caribou, bison (which I’ve found ground at Costco and think tastes really good) but also deer, or venison, which tends to be much leaner than beef because although red meat, the animal hasn’t been raised to be fatty the way we raise cows here.”
Unsaturated Fats and Fiber
As a cardiologist, Dr. Petre recommends the Nordic diet for the same reasons she recommends the Mediterranean diet.
“The Nordic diet is rich in healthy unsaturated fats and fiber, with low amounts of sugar, saturated fat, and processed foods,” Petre says.
“In many ways it is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which is shown to help prevent heart disease. Both diets are high in Omega-3s which lower blood pressure, increase good cholesterol, reduce bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of diabetes.
Additionally, they are associated with lowering the risk of cancer and improving inflammation and overall cardiac health. A 2013 Nordic study found that individuals on the diet experienced improved blood lipids and inflammation.”
Fatty Fish and Fermented Foods
Shifley also champions the diet, noting its staples as beneficial for long-term health.
“Much research shows the benefits of consuming fatty fish, as well as lean fish [both integral to the diet, which] also includes dried fruits and whole grains as staples,” Shifley says. “These foods include many essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as fiber, which can help with satiety, lowering cholesterol, blood sugar control and potentially with lowering risk of colon cancer.”
Additionally, fermented foods, another aspect of this diet, are great for gut health, as they “contain good bacteria (probiotics) that can help populate our guts and may provide protection again many conditions including obesity, digestive issues, diabetes, and more.”
A Note About Fermented Foods
According to Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, fermented foods are “the flavorful space between fresh and rotten.”
That doesn’t sound very tasty does it? But take note, most highly prized gourmet foods are fermented ones because the process of fermentation creates very strong flavors.
The process of fermenting foods isn’t a new one: Evidence indicates that early civilizations were making wine and beer between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago — and bread even before that.
If you think about it – most cultures have their own version of fermented cabbage or sauerkraut – European sauerkraut, Korean Kimchi, Latin Cortido and the list goes on and on.
These people developed these techniques out of necessity to preserve their foods for long periods of time without the use of refrigeration or canning methods. This process is actually called ‘lacto-fermentation’.
According to the Nourishing Traditions cookbook, “lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria. Starches and sugars in vegetables and fruits are converted to lactic acid by the many species of lactic-acid-producing bacteria or lactobacilli.”
The fermentation of dairy products and the preservation of vegetables and fruits actually have benefits beyond simple preservation.
The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented foods enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. Numerous helpful enzymes are produced as well as antibiotic and anticarcenogenic substances. These bacteria promote the growth of healthy bacteria or flora throughout our intestines.
Again according to Sandor Katz, “Bacteria in our gut enable us to live. We could not survive without bacteria. … they allow us to digest food, to assimilate the nutrients in our food; and they play a huge role, just beginning to be understood, in our immune functioning and in many other processes in our bodies.
All life has evolved from bacteria and no other form of life has lived without bacteria. … Our bacteria perform all sorts of essential functions for us, and because we are continually attacking them effectively with all of these chemicals in our lives, simply replenishing and diversifying these populations has a benefit for us.”
Root Vegetables and Cabbage
The types of root vegetables (potatoes, rutabagas and carrots, for instance) that the Nordic diet uses are also packed with nutrients.
“Potatoes get a bad rap [in America] because we do a lot of fried potatoes,” says Shifley. “But in the Nordic diet they’re usually baked, grilled or boiled. They’re loaded with potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B and some iron and magnesium.
They do have a lot of carbs but also fiber which helps damper the affect of carbs on blood sugar; that said, people with diabetes do need to be a bit more careful with potatoes.”
Cabbage is another cornerstone of the Nordic diet, a leafy green that is an excellent source of nutrients.
“Cabbage has similar benefits to kale,” says Shifley. “It’s a cruciferous vegetable — very leafy — and very low in calories and high in fiber so it will help fill you up when want to control calories.
It’s high in vitamins K, C, and B as well as in several antioxidants, particularly those high in sulphur, which may help lower the risks of certain types of cancer such as esophageal cancer.”
One of the core cooking ingredients in the Nordic Diet is canola oil, marking one of its biggest differences from the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates olive oil.
“This has been a source of concern, as olive oil has a better Omega-3 profile and contains more antioxidants and polyphenols found in olives,” says Dr. Petre.
You could certainly swap out canola oil for olive oil, but Shifley notes that the latter does have less of a taste, making it more appealing to cook with when you’re making something that doesn’t naturally pair with that distinct olive flavor.
Additionally, while canola oil is a bit weaker in some nutritional aspects, the dissimilarities are far from significant.
“They’re both calorie dense unsaturated fats, which helps keep down the bad cholesterol, LDL, and also gives a boost to the HDL, the good cholesterol that acts like a vaccuum [in the body], grabbing the fatty buildup and flushing it out of body,” Shifley says.
Inspiration for Nordic Meals
You might be scratching your head as to exactly how to eat elk meat. It may be helpful to refer to a Nordic cookbook or search the Internet for meal ideas and recipes.
Some examples of what you might eat include:
- Oat or barley porridge mixed with berries and organic milk
- Seaweed or kale pesto served over new potatoes or whole grain bread
- Fishcakes or venison patties served with beets or carrots
- Slow-cooked elk roast (or lean beef) with pea soup and marinated cucumbers
The Nordic Way by Arne Astrup, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, and Christian Bitz
Powerhouse experts Arne Astrup, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, and Christian Bitz know that the Nordic Diet is the “best diet in the world” for getting healthy and staying lean, even into middle age and beyond.
As leaders in obesity research, glycemic science, and healthy living, respectively, they’ve learned that eating a specific ratio of proteins, whole grains, and vegetables and incorporating traditional Nordic ingredients such as rye flour, skyr yogurt, and rapeseed oil into one’s diet are the most effective paths to overall health and stable weight.
There’s complex science at work behind the Nordic Diet, yet it’s remarkably simple and delicious to adopt.
Readers will be able to see significant improvements in their health and weight—and even prevent the dreaded middle-age spread—without ever having to count a single calorie or eliminate carbs, dairy, and meat.
Featuring an in-depth look at peer-reviewed studies that support the diet and more than 60 stunningly photographed recipes, The Nordic Way is the health-forward cookbook that readers need to get and stay healthy for life.
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