What is the Nordic diet? (And why should you start eating it?)
You are probably familiar with the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and olive oil. The diet has been associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes, as well as a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. But there’s another diet that has its roots overseas, and it appears to offer similar health benefits.
The Nordic diet consists of foods traditionally sourced in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Similar to the Mediterranean, the Nordic has been linked to decreased risk for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. Other research suggests that the Nordic diet may be beneficial for weight loss.
Another similarity between the two is that they are both based on “seasonal, sustainable and locally sourced foods with an emphasis on plant-based eating,” explained Layne Lieberman, registered dietitian and author of “Beyond the Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets of the Super-Healthy.”
Staples of the Nordic diet are based on the Baltic Sea diet pyramid, created by the Finnish Heart Association, the Finnish Diabetes Association and the University of Eastern Finland. They include berries and fruits; fatty fish (such as herring, mackerel and salmon); lean fish (such as cod, haddock and halibut); legumes; vegetables, including cabbage and root vegetables; and whole-grain cereals including barley, oats and rye.
“There are several things I like about the Nordic diet,” said Lauri Wright, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “First, it is plant-forward and reduces meat consumption. Second, the Nordic diet has a core principle of sustainability, emphasizing local and fresh, which I think is very beneficial for the environment and for health.”
Though the Mediterranean and Nordic diets include similar foods, a major difference is in the fats that are used: The Mediterranean region is known for its olive oil production, and that is why olive oil predominates in this region, whereas the Nordic diet promotes canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil), Lieberman explained.
Canola oil and olive oil are both rich in monounsaturated fats, which promote heart health by raising HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and lowering LDL, the "bad" cholesterol; however, "canola oil doesn't have the antioxidants that olive oil does," Wright said.
Although the Nordic diet can offer a very healthful way of eating, it doesn't specify how much food you should consume. "You always need to monitor portion sizes for weight control," Wright said.
The new Nordic diet
The Nordic diet has been around for quite some time, tied, as it is, to Nordic nutrition recommendations, which have been published every eight years since 1980. Those guidelines serve a similar role as US dietary ones. But a "new Nordic diet" was developed in 2004 by Nordic chefs in an effort to improve the culinary appeal of the diet.
"The new Nordic diet is based on seasonal ingredients, and it aims to elevate the products that are available in the Nordic region," said Roberto Flore, who heads culinary research and development in the Nordic food lab at the University of Copenhagen. "Techniques used to process food can be diverse and not necessarily related to past Nordic traditions of cooking."
The new Nordic diet includes a lot of the existing diet principles but also aims to create flavors, extend the availability of local products during winter seasons and increase the nutritional value of the food. It also includes recommendations to eat organic produce whenever possible, eat more food from wild landscapes, avoid food additives and eat more home-cooked food.
If you want to try the new Nordic diet, you can simply start incorporating its principles into your daily diet, regardless of where you live, explained Flore, who recently showcased the new Nordic diet as part of a culinary demonstration at a World Health Organization symposium that discussed the diet's benefits.
At the event, he cooked semidry smoked Danish squid with fermented celeriac and sour fish broth, served with a side of wild pickled flowers, as an example of a dish that "fully shows off the soul of the new Nordic cuisine and how the principles of it are applied in a dish."
But for a meal-by-meal account of what the new Nordic diet looks and might taste like, check out Flore's menu below, which also includes some elements and products from the Mediterranean areas.
A typical day on the new Nordic diet
Breakfast generally includes dry fruits, grains, berries and fermented dairy products such as skyr or kefir. In winter, breakfast might be porridge made with oats.
Lunch is generally light and includes rye bread, salads, fermented products, pickles, herrings and eggs. A large space is given to vegetables, and there is a great appreciation for roots and earthy flavors, including mushrooms and other products from the forest in autumn, Flore explained. During springtime, lunch might include asparagus, green peas, rhubarb and lots of wild herbs and fresh fruits.
For dinner, fish might be served, but lots of chefs serve small quantities of sustainably sourced meat or animals hunted in the wild, according to Flore. Like with lunch, a large space is reserved for vegetables at dinner. A rich umami paste may be used for seasoning ingredients and adding flavors to meals.