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The Nordic Diet – A Good Diet For Optimal Health & Weight Loss?

Published: 13th May 2018. Last updated: 21th July 2019.

Shaun Ward MSc ANutr

Staff Writer


Introduction

The nordic diet aims to replicate the traditional diet that people used to eat in the nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.

It was invented by a group of nutritionists and chefs in 2004 to try and combat the ever-rising obesity rates in these countries, and to revert back to more local and sustainable agriculture.

Many people think it was originally just an adaptation of the Baltic Sea Diet Pyramid, attempting to make it more appealing to the general population by including a more diverse range of flavors. There also seemed to be slightly more focus on eating organic natural foods with less additives.

Since it was released, the diet has only been praised by many other nutrition and health experts and is usually high up on peoples list of “go-to” diets for long-term health. It is often looked at in a very similar light to the Mediterranean diet due to the clear similarities.

What Is The Nordic Diet?

Unlike most diets, there is no calorie counting or severe limitation of food intake. Instead the diet focuses on healthy dietary changes that can easily be sustained in the long run.

It is very close to what would represent a diet based on the current international dietary guidelines and recommendations in Europe and the United States.

In general, it pushes the consumption of fruit, vegetables, and fish, whilst advocating foods that are “in-season”.

  • No Limits: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, rye breads, fish, seafood, low-fat dairy, herbs, spices, and canola oil.
  • Moderate: White meats, free-range eggs, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Limit: Red meats and animal fats
  • Avoid: Added sugar, soda, processed meats, food additives, and refined foods.

As mentioned, the nordic diet is very similar to the mediterranean diet. The only real difference is the mediterranean diet advocates extra virgin olive oil, and the Nordic diet promotes canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil).

These oils have a similar nutrient composition and mainly consist of high in monounsaturated fats and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. To pick at differences between the two, extra virgin olive oil would be mildly superior because of the lower content of omega-6 which can be a highly inflammatory (especially when heated).

However when both have been comparatively studied for their effects on health markers there does not seem to be any notable differences [1].

The Potential Benefits of The Nordic Diet

Below we've listed every potential benefit that has credible scientific backing:

It May Be Useful For Weight Loss

Although there are not too many direct studies on the nordic diet, by looking at the results of the mediterranean diet and the DASH diet it can be assumed that it will likely cause weight loss in most people [2] [3].

One study that did directly study the nordic diet on over 100 obese people is evidence for this, with subjects able to lose a significant amount of weight after 6 months even when instructed to eat ad libitum (as desired), crediting the diets palatability for the great results [4].

Another study indicated that the nordic diet can even cause weight loss in a much shorter period of time, with 4% body weight lost after just 6 weeks [5].

The high dietary fiber content on the diet, due to the focus on whole grain, cabbages, and root vegetables, will effectively keep people satiated throughout the day, prevent cravings, and reduce daily caloric intake [6].

The only worrying aspect of the diet for weight loss is that a follow-up study a year after one of the prior studies showed that the participants had gained most of the weight back that was initially lost [7].

There is no reason to believe this is a fault of the diet, but it warrants further research on the sustainability of this dietary approach.

It May Improve Cardiovascular Health

Based on the famous NORDIET study, the nordic diet is capable of significantly improving blood lipid profiles (triglyceride/cholesterol levels) and blood pressure and in hypercholesterolemic subjects [8].

Randomized controlled trials also support the statement that nordic dietary recommendations improve the levels of HDL “good” cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and apolipoprotein ratios that favor protection from atherosclerosis [9].

From a public health point of view, these results are encouraging, as even small improvements in lipid profiles are considered to have a major impact on cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality [10].

Researchers have suggested these benefits stem from the improvements in inflammation, endothelial function [11], and glucose metabolism [12].

The component of the diet most responsible for such benefits has been credited to the composition of dietary fatty acids on the metabolism of lipids and lipoproteins.

The Nordic diet does a good job at massively reducing ones intake of saturated fat and increasing the consumption of both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as is recommended by leading health organizations based on research on cardiovascular risk factors [13].

The restriction of red meat and full-fat dairy is the main way the nordic diet successfully reduces saturated fat intake, instead focusing on plant proteins, fish, and low-fat dairy products.

Much like the mediterranean diet, the promotion of consuming fish, or at least swapping meat for fish, can lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease when eaten 1–2 times per week. Just 50 grams of fish per day has even been correlated to a ~50% reduction in mortality from cardiovascular issues [14].

The replacement of saturated fats with low-glycemic carbohydrates such as whole grains is also associated with improved cardiovascular health [15].

It May Reduce Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a major driver of many serious diseases.

Interestingly, a study revealed that the nordic diet manages to reduce the expression of specific genes related to inflammation in fat tissues. Even better, these changes were able to improve this gene expression in the absence of weight loss – a very rare dietary occurrence [16].

The primary dietary component of the nordic diet that is having this effect has not been isolated, but is theorized to be due to an improved gut microbiome from the elevated dietary fiber intake.

High dietary fiber intakes promote positive modifications to the types of bacteria in the gut, and lead to the generation of short-chain fatty acids; including acetate, propionate, and butyrate. At least in animal experiments, production of these short-chain fatty acids from the gut can suppress the development of several inflammatory, autoimmune, and allergic diseases.

Evidence that the mediterranean diet can completely reshape the gut microbiota and increase healthy bacterial species only solidifies the potential benefit of the nordic diet [17].

Generally, the richer a diet is in various plant foods, the more it is associated with a better and more phylogenetic diverse microbiota in the gut [18].

A reduction in inflammation on the nordic diet could be also be partially due to the following factors:

  • Polyphenols (from fruits/vegetables) can downregulate inflammatory-related genes and improve immune function [19].
  • Berries in particular have been able to downregulate the expression of pro-inflammatory related genes, such as NF-kB in immune cells [20].
  • Increasing the intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has also been shown to inhibit NF-kB signaling [21].
  • Observational studies indicate that whole-grain consumption could have an anti-inflammatory effect [22]. Wholegrains even have their own unique phytoprotective components, such as a compound called spermidine, known to increase DNA repair and remove damaged components from within cells [23].
  • High fruit and vegetable intake, in general, repeatedly demonstrates being able to boost plasma antioxidant concentrations and reduce inflammation. This is likely due to a higher intake of antioxidant vitamins (β-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E), natural folate, phytochemicals (flavonoids), and mineral (selenium) concentrations.

Conclusion

The nordic diet focuses on consuming organic and “in-season” fruits, vegetables, and fish.

With many similarities to the Mediterranean diet, it may be able to cause weight loss, improve cardiovascular health, and reduce inflammation.

The best part of the diet is that it emphasizes eating healthy whole-foods, and not on severely restricting calories.

This makes such the nordic diet one that can be sustained for long periods of time, whilst improving people’s health and wellbeing in the process.

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