The battle of the diets wages on. Every day, we’re inundated with information about another diet and its potential health and weight loss benefits. There are proponents of a low-carb diet as well as those who believe a plant-based diet is the key to health and longevity – but who’s right?
One eating plan you hear a lot about is the Mediterranean diet. A number of studies have looked at a Mediterranean-style diet, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats from olive oil and nuts. Research shows that a diet based on Mediterranean eating principles is linked with a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and, also, with reduced mortality.
However, there’s another diet that’s somewhat similar to the Mediterranean diet that’s garnering attention for its potential health benefits – the Nordic diet.
The Nordic Approach to Eating
The Nordic diet isn’t another fad diet, but the traditional diet enjoyed by residents of Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. You might wonder how the two diets differ. The Mediterranean diet is based on olive oil and plant-based foods with fish and small amounts of poultry for protein. Nuts and whole grains are also an important part of a Mediterranean diet. You won’t find an abundance of meat, especially red meat or dairy as part of the Mediterranean diet. However, dairy is a component of the Nordic diet.
What’s old is new again. More than a decade ago, chefs and nutritionists met in Copenhagen to revamp the traditional diet and create the new Nordic diet, a style of eating that emphasizes plant-based foods, such as root vegetables, and foraged foods, like berries. Whole grains are part of the revamped diet, along with fish, wild game, and modest amounts of dairy. As with the Mediterranean diet, the emphasis is on plant-based offerings as opposed to meat.
The Mediterranean diet and Nordic diet include lots of plant-based foods and whole grains, especially oats, rye, and barley. Both diets include fish, but the Nordic diet emphasizes smoked fish as a protein source over red meat and poultry. Another key difference is the type of oil each diet emphasizes. The traditional oil of the Mediterranean diet is unprocessed, extra-virgin olive oil, an oil rich in heart-healthy, monounsaturated fats. In contrast, rapeseed, or canola oil, is the preferred choice of the Nordic community. Canola oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and contains alpha-linolenic acid, a type of short-chain omega-3. Your body converts a small portion of the alpha-linolenic acid you get through diet into long-chain omega-3s, the type you find in fish oil.
In terms of fatty acid composition, a Nordic diet is high in omega-3 fats and relatively low in omega-6 fats, the type you find in abundance in processed foods. That’s important, from a health standpoint, as the ratio of dietary omega-3 to omega-6 is a factor in inflammation. When you consume a diet rich in omega-6 fats, your body produces more inflammatory cytokines that fuel your body’s inflammatory response, whereas omega-3s help to curb inflammation. Experts believe that the traditional American diet with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of up to 20 to 1 omega-6 to omega-3 may explain why chronic diseases related to inflammation are so common in Western countries. An ideal ratio would be closer to 2 to 1 omega-6 to omega-3, or even 1 to 1. Eating a Nordic diet boosts the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 relative to a traditional American diet of processed foods. Processed foods are typically made with corn oil or soybean oil, both high in omega-6 fats.
Another distinguishing feature of a Nordic style of eating is its emphasis on berries. People who eat a Nordic diet enjoy a variety of berries, including lingonberries, bilberries, blueberries, and strawberries – a smart addition to any diet! Berries are among the most nutrient-dense foods in existence, ranking almost as high as dark, leafy greens. Dark berries are also a rich source of cell-protective antioxidants and other phytochemicals that most Americans don’t get enough of.
What Science Shows about the Nordic Diet
The Nordic diet, like its Mediterranean counterpart, also has health benefits. Studies show eating this type of diet helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol. One study even linked it with a reduced risk of premature death. Not surprisingly, studies also correlate a Nordic style of eating with weight loss, as most of the foods are nutrient-dense but low in calories.
In one study, researchers pooled the data from 15 randomized, controlled studies looking at the impact of the Nordic diet on health. All of the studies showed a Nordic diet lowers LDL-cholesterol. In fact. one study found the diet was linked with a 21% reduction in LDL. Pretty impressive! Some research also demonstrates a reduction in inflammation and blood pressure. In fact, one study showed that the Nordic diet lowered blood pressure as much as the Mediterranean and DASH diet, two eating plans many healthcare professionals recommend for people with high blood pressure to follow.
Is the Nordic Diet Better Than a Mediterranean Eating Style?
The Mediterranean and Nordic diet are similar in many ways. Each emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods and limits intake of sugar, unhealthy cooking oils, food additives, and processed meat. However, the Mediterranean diet has more science behind it, but, preliminarily, a Nordic eating style has health benefits as well.
Either diet is better than the standard, American diet of processed foods with its abundance of added sugar and unhealthy fats. The Nordic and Mediterranean diet are built around the same principles, so you could take eating tips from both. Take a cue from the Nordic diet and add some berries to a bowl of oats or rye in the morning. Borrow from the Mediterranean diet and add a sprinkling of nuts. The take-home message is to eat more whole, unprocessed foods and remove sugar and unhealthy, processed oils from your diet. Eat whole foods and source them locally as much as possible. That’s the key to keeping your body healthy! So enjoy the diversity of whole foods that each eating style offers.
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