We all know what an Italian diet looks like, and most of us could pick out Greek fare in a line-up. We can recognise a Lebanese feast, and even prepare a French cassoulet. But tell us to imagine a Scandinavian meal and we may not get past the cherry Danish.
How is it different?
So what makes the fare in Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Denmark so health-promoting? And how does it differ from the Mediterranean diet? For the latter question, there are several distinct differences. First, olive oil is less common in the Nordic countries, and you’re less likely to be served nuts, avocados, olives and seeds; all heavily featured in the traditional Mediterranean diet. You might wonder about the aversion to fatty acids until you consider the huge amount of oily fish consumed in that part of the world. But it’s not so much an aversion as a principle of eating locally and seasonally – in this way, the philosophies of each diet merge.
Why should we care?
So why has the Nordic diet suddenly gained traction worldwide? A study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine detailed the work of a group of researchers who followed 166 adults with metabolic disorders (which cause complications like heart disease and diabetes) for several months. They found that subjects who switched to a “healthy Nordic diet” had drastically improved cholesterol levels, which would in turn indicate better outcomes for their respective conditions.
In the meantime, dietary researchers at the University of Copenhagen created the New Nordic Diet, taking the traditional food principals of the region and giving it a modern-day kick. They tested it out on nearly 150 obese men and women over the course of 6 months, with half being assigned to the New Nordic diet, and the other half being prescribed the average Danish diet. The results? The Nordic diet resulted in three times the weight loss and greater reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol.
What’s in it?
So what is the Nordic diet, exactly? There is a focus on wholegrains, particularly rye bread, a higher intake of fruit (but mostly berries) and plenty of seasonal vegetables, with potatoes, cabbage and root vegetables like swedes, radishes and carrots all feature prominently. Then there’s fish, and plenty of it. Oily fish is consumed at least three times a week, and seaweed and other edible ocean flora also feature. Red meat is part of the Nordic diet, but it is eaten less frequently, in smaller quantities and is typically a higher quality cut – freshly prepared venison or rabbit from a local butcher, for example. You’ll also find less additives and pre-packaged foods, with a focus on home cooking that creates little waste. In this way, sustainability is an important part of the overall philosophy. And what about dairy? Sure, in moderation. Yoghurt is recommended above all other kinds, but we can’t see much harm in a slice of Danish Blue.
Bringing it all home
So with a drastically different climate and environment, is it even possible to eat the Nordic diet in this part of the world? Though some elements will need to be modified to avoid expensive and arduous ingredient-sourcing, the principles can be applied anywhere. Here’s how:
More fish, less meat. Integrate mackerel, sardines, anchovies and herring into your diet. Too much for your palate? Start with salmon and work on your bravery. Your healthy omega-3 fatty acids will skyrocket, and there’s a big vitamin D kick in there as well.
Eat plenty of berries. Stop snacking on chips and chocolate and fill a bowl with delicious red and purple berries. They are high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Choose rye bread. Rich in fibre, magnesium, iron, zinc and B vitamins, rye is one of the best sources of grain available. It’s very common in Scandinavia, but you may have to shop around here to find a good one.
Root vegetables. If you pull it out of the ground, it’s probably good for you. They also offer fibre, potassium and magnesium.
It all seems pretty basic, right? But it’s not for everyone’s tastes, particularly the western diet with its penchant for salt, sugar and saturated fats. If the idea of the Nordic diet repulses you, start slowly. Introduce small amounts of oily fish and shun pre-packaged foods. If you’re eating fresh, seasonal and local produce, you’re certainly doing something right, so don’t give up so early! While you’re reconsidering your diet and lifestyle choices, compare private health insurance providers and see where you can save on professional dietary and nutritional advice.