Nordic Diet: Meet the Mediterranean Diet's Northern Neighbor
It’s no secret popular culture is into all things Scandi these days: minimalist home decor has hit a high; Copenhagen Fashion Week inspires countless Instagram fashion bloggers; and U.S. News and World Report named the Nordic diet one of the year’s best.
So what does snacking like the Swedes and dining like the Danes look like. And can it help your weight loss journey?
What Is the Nordic Diet?
The Nordic diet is a flexitarian eating plan founded largely on foods originating in the Nordic region — Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. It’s mostly plant-based, so you’re encouraged to load up on foods like berries, nuts, legumes, root vegetables, and whole grains.
The Nordic diet does allow for some animal products, but quality is key here. That means limiting red, farmed, and processed meats in favor of low-fat dairy, omega-3-rich fatty fish, free-range livestock, and game meats.
While the Nordic diet channels the dining culture of the region, it’s rooted in much more than tradition. Researchers based in Denmark’s University of Copenhagen designed the diet — also known as the new Nordic diet — with the co-founder of Noma, a Danish restaurant that has earned two Michelin stars and a reputation around the world.
What Do You Eat on the New Nordic Diet?
The Nordic diet gets right down to the tips we’ve been hearing for years about how to nourish ourselves better — but with some slight Scandinavian tweaks. The founders of this way of eating want you to:
Emphasize fruits and vegetables
The Nordic diet is mostly plant-based, specifically favoring the following foods:
- Root vegetables
- Whole grains
Opt for high-quality meats…
…but eat less meat overall. Instead of farmed flesh, get what moderate amounts of the meat you eat from the following sources.
- Seafood like omega-3-rich salmon, mackerel, and herring.
- Free-range livestock, including pigs and poultry.
- Game (wild) meat like elk.
Why the aversion to farmed meat? Studies have shown that meat from free-range and wild animals that feed on herbs and grass has a healthier fatty acid composition than meat from animals raised in confined feeding operations. That amounts to less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat, a.k.a. healthy fats.
Source organically, locally, and seasonally
Geographical and/or economic factors may limit ready access to fish and certain game, as well as some crops. But there are good reasons beyond fashionability that make going org-lo-sea (good luck getting that conjunction to take off) preferable.
Farmed ﬁsh are often fed a more plant-based diet, which may result in a reduced amount of healthy ﬁsh oils in the final product. Also, sourcing food closer to home reduces the environmental impact of transporting it over long distances.
What Isn’t Allowed on the Nordic Diet?
Like most responsible eating regimens the Nordic diet minimizes processed foods and added sugar. Overall it favors fats from plants and seafood, while limiting other animal fats and dairy, which contain more saturated fat.
That last constraint is the only issue Jim White, RD, ACSM, EX-P, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, sees with the Nordic diet. “The one major nutrient that would be difficult to obtain would be calcium since very little dairy is recommended.”
He warns that getting enough plant-based calcium may take extra planning. “Focus on calcium-rich non-dairy foods, such as beans, nuts, and seaweed that are plentiful in the diet.” Other rich sources of non-dairy calcium include sardines, tofu, almond and soy milk.
Can You Lose Weight on the Nordic Diet?
To put it plainly: yes, when followed correctly, though that’s not the focus of the new Nordic diet. Still, these countries are clearly onto something when it comes to living a lean lifestyle: In 2015, just 12 percent of adults 15 and older in Norway were obese, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); that number during the same year in the U.S. was 38.2 percent.
With its focus on nutrient-dense, high-volume, relatively low-calories foods, the Nordic diet can set you up for weight loss success. But you’ll need to control some things yourself.
“We 100 percent are all about this diet,” say Nutrition Twins Tammy Lakatos Shames, RD, CDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RD, CDN, CFT. “It’s reasonable, and it doesn’t exclude any entire food groups — so it’s sustainable and doesn’t set you up to feel deprived.”
That means you’ll be less likely to throw in the towel over chronic hunger or cravings, a core feature of all diets that work. But the twins do offer a word of warning: the Nordic diet doesn’t involve calorie counting. “Be aware of excess portions of any food; even healthy ones can still cause weight gain rather than decrease it.”
Studies do support the weight-loss potential of the Nordic diet, although maintaining that loss might be a problem — as it is with many plans. Obese patients instructed to follow the new Nordic diet lost 10.4 lbs while those who ate an average Danish diet lost only 3.3 lbs. But they gained most of the weight back over the intervening year.
Another study underscored the weight-loss potential of the Nordic diet, with participants losing 4 percent of their body weight compared with those in a control group who ate a typical diet. Researchers haven’t followed up on this group, but a third study showed adherence to this diet successfully moved the scale over a seven-year period for participants.
Possible Benefits of the Nordic Diet
Other than the potential for weight loss, there’s a lot to love about this brand of Viking dining. Here’s what science says you may expect from following the new Nordic diet.
While research has been limited, participants with high cholesterol saw theirs improve in a small study conducted in Sweden. LDL cholesterol, the “bad” kind, dropped in participants by more than 20 percent over the course of six weeks.
Improving your insulin sensitivity can ripple out to benefit broader markers of your health. Participants in the above study saw decreases in insulin sensitivity when weight loss was factored.
Adherence to the Nordic diet, which researchers in a 2017 study viewed as the northern European alternative to the Mediterranean diet, reduced the instance of heart complications in both men and women.
“Eating fatty fish [as prescribed by the Nordic diet] two to three times a week is helpful for increasing Omega 3 fatty acids, important for cardiovascular health as well as for their anti-inflammatory properties,” White says.
Inspiration for Nordic Diet recipes
One of the great things about this healthy eating regimen is that many recipes you already use to lose weight fit within it. This beet berry superfood smoothie is loaded with berries and root veggies and rounded out with low-fat dairy. Plus, it’s an easy recipe that gets you out the door quickly in the morning.
Our chicken, strawberry, and spinach salad with walnuts takes just minutes to throw together and fits the new Nordic diet. Just make sure to buy chicken from a quality source, and dress it with an oil that’s rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats.