By Joe Leech, Dietitian Authority Nutrition
The latest “diet” to appear in the media is called the Nordic diet.
Proponents of this diet claim that you can improve your health by eating “Nordic” foods.
These are the traditional foods commonly eaten by people in the Nordic countries.
Several studies have shown that the Nordic diet can cause weight loss and improve health markers, at least in the short-term (1, 2).
This eating pattern is also supported by the fact that obesity rates in the Nordic countries are much lower than in the US (3).
This article explains everything you need to know about the Nordic diet. What to eat, what to avoid, health benefits, a research review and numerous tips.
What is The Nordic Diet?
As the name suggests, the Nordic diet is a way of eating that focuses on the traditional foods of the Nordic countries (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland).
The Nordic diet was created in 2004 by a group of nutritionists, scientists and chefs, in order to address growing obesity rates and unsustainable farming practices in the Nordic countries.
Compared with an average Western diet, it contains less sugar, less fat, twice the fiber, and twice the fish and seafood (4).
Foods to Eat and Avoid
The Nordic diet emphasizes locally grown and sustainable food sources, with a heavy focus on foods considered healthy according to “mainstream” nutrition science.
Eat often: Fruits, berries, vegetables, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, rye breads, fish, seafood, low-fat dairy, herbs, spices and rapeseed (canola) oil.
Eat in moderation: Game meats, free-range eggs, cheese and yogurt.
Eat rarely: Other red meats and animal fats.
Don’t eat: Sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meats, food additives and refined fast foods.
The Nordic diet is actually very similar to the Mediterranean diet. The biggest difference is that it emphasizes canola/rapeseed oil instead of extra virgin olive oil.
As many critics correctly point out, many of the foods on the “Nordic” diet were actually never eaten in the Nordic countries back in the day.
These include low-fat dairy and canola oil, which are modern foods. Fruit also does not grow well in the north, except perhaps for some berries.
Bottom Line: The Nordic diet emphasizes the traditional foods of the Nordic countries. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet in many ways, and heavily emphasizes plant foods and sea foods.
The Nordic Diet and Weight Loss
Several studies have assessed the weight loss effects of the Nordic diet.
In one study of 147 obese men and women, those eating a Nordic diet lost 10.4 lbs (4.7 kg), while those eating a typical Danish diet lost only 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg) (1).
This is fairly impressive, especially considering that people were not instructed to restrict calories.
However, in a follow-up study a year later, the Nordic diet participants had gained most of the weight back (5).
These results are actually very typical for long-term studies on weight loss. People lose weight in the beginning, but then it gradually returns over a period of 1-2 years.
Another study supports the weight-reducing effects of the Nordic diet. In this 6-week long study, the Nordic diet group lost 4% of body weight, significantly more than those who followed a standard diet (6).
Bottom Line: The Nordic diet appears to be effective for short-term weight loss, even when people are not asked to restrict their calorie intake.
Health Benefits of The Nordic Diet
Healthy eating goes way beyond just weight loss.
It can also lead to significant improvements in metabolic health, and lower the risk of all sorts of chronic diseases.
Several studies have examined the effects of the Nordic diet on health markers.
In a 6-month study on obese participants, a Nordic diet reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 5.1 and 3.2 mmHg, respectively, compared to a control diet (1).
Another 12-week study found a significant reduction in diastolic blood pressure in participants with the metabolic syndrome (7).
Cholesterol and Triglycerides
Even though the Nordic diet is high in many heart-healthy foods, its effects on cholesterol and triglycerides are inconsistent.
Some studies, but not all, have found a reduction in triglycerides, but the effects on LDL and HDL cholesterol appear to be so small that they are not statistically significant (1, 2).
However, one study found a mild reduction in the LDL-c/HDL-c ratio and the Apo B/Apo A1 ratio, as well as non-HDL cholesterol, which are all strong risk factors for heart disease (2).
Blood Sugar Control
The Nordic diet does not appear to be very effective at lowering blood sugar levels, but one study found a small reduction in fasting blood sugar (1, 2).
Chronic inflammation is a major driver of many serious diseases.
Studies on the Nordic diet and inflammation have given mixed results. One study found a reduction in the inflammatory marker CRP, while others have found no statistically significant effects (1, 2).
Another study found that the Nordic diet reduced the expression of genes related to inflammation in the body’s fat tissues (8).
Bottom Line: The Nordic diet appears to be effective for lowering blood pressure. The effects on cholesterol, blood triglycerides, blood sugar levels and inflammatory markers are weak and inconsistent.
Environmental Aspect of The Nordic Diet
The Nordic diet may be a good choice from an environmental perspective. It emphasizes foods that are locally grown and sustainably farmed.
Some proponents of the diet also recommend consuming organic foods.
Take Home Message
The evidence behind the Nordic diet is not particularly impressive.
It does cause short-term weight loss, and some reduction in blood pressure and inflammatory markers, but the results appear to be weak and inconsistent.
At the end of the day, any diet that emphasizes real food instead of standard Western junk food is likely to lead to weight loss and health improvements.
This has been demonstrated, time and time again, in hundreds of studies on various different diets.
However, there is nothing magical about “Nordic” foods, or “eating like a viking.”
The diet works because it replaces processed foods with whole, single-ingredient foods. That’s it.