For nearly two decades, the Mediterranean diet has been the food choice recommended by dietitians and the USDA.. This approach to eating has been proven to improve health and reduce risk of chronic disease.
But there’s a new contender: the Nordic diet.
This plan focuses on eating fermented foods and beverages, with less meat and more legumes than in the Mediterranean diet. Both approaches are plant-based and full of lean proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats.
“The nordic diet really does promote a lifelong approach to healthy eating,” says Valerie Agyeman, RDN (pictured). “It also really really focuses on seasonal, local, organic and sustainably sourced whole foods that are traditionally eaten in the Nordic region.”
Agyeman, founder of Flourish Heights, shared her research during a Today’s Dietitian webinar “Breaking Down the Nordic Diet: Why is it Gaining So Much Popularity?” The presentation was designed to help registered dietitians better counsel clients on healthy eating habits.
What is Nordic Eating?
The diet embraces traditional Nordic cuisine, with a focus on ingredients that are fresh and local. The core of the fare is from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.
“Fresh, pure and earthly are the words used to describe this food movement that was born out of the landscape and culture,” Agyeman says. “The Nordic movement is all about using what is available.”
The goal is not to invent a new cuisine, but to get back to its roots. Seafood is central, but meat – scarce during the long Nordic winters – is treated as a side dish Fresh vegetables and berries – the most common Nordic fruit – are prevalent during the summer. Fermented foods were born out of the necessity to preserve food from the warmer months to eat during winter. The indigenous Nordic people traditionally fermented vegetables, fish and dairy.
“It really takes the focus off calories and puts it on healthy food,” Agyeman adds. “This way of eating is pretty nutrient-dense.”
Nordic foods, she continues, are served in their natural state with minimal processing. They’re high in antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, fiber, minerals and vitamins; low in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and added salts.
“The Nordic diet is really not that straightforward,” Agyeman says. “When you think of other cuisines, like Italian cuisine, they have signature flavors and various culinary techniques that make up Italian cuisine. When it comes to Nordic cooking, it’s very diverse.”
Key, too, is sustainability. Foods from the Nordic countries have a lower environmental impact because they’re sourced locally and eaten in season.
Sustainability is also partly why Nordic cuisine has become a staple at many restaurants. The farm-to-table style continues to expand in restaurant dining, along with fermentation. Restaurants around the world are following the lead of Copenhagen’s Noma and building their own labs to explore the flavors and textures fermentation adds to dishes.
“Today [fermentation] is not something that’s needed,” like it was before a global food scene made it simpler to eat fresh food year round, Agyeman says. “But culinary wise, fermentation has evolved. It’s become a big part of these new creations.”
Fermented foods and beverages add to the “epicurean experience,” adds Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist and nutrition expert based in New York.
“Savory flavors and fermented food with spices make it a culinary experience,” she says.
Studies show eating the Nordic diet prevents obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The health effects of the Nordic diet were always assumed to be solely due to weight loss. But results of the most recent study of the diet, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in February, found the positive health effects are “irrespective of weight loss.”
“It’s surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play,” said Lars Ove Dragsted, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports in a statement on the study.
The researchers from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland studied 200 people over 50 years of age with elevated BMI. All were at an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For six months, the group ate the Nordic diet while a control group ate their regular meals.
“The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group,” Dragsted said. “We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health.”