Many Americans go on strict diets in order to lose weight. But does that really have to be the primary purpose of a diet? According to new research, you may be able to lower your cholesterol and improve your blood sugar levels without losing weight if you follow a particular meal plan: The Nordic diet.
What is the Nordic diet?
The Nordic diet has been around for some time, and it’s a fan favorite. Featuring foods from Nordic regions like Denmark, Iceland, and Norway, it is quite similar to the Mediterranean diet (think fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein).
However, there are a few key differences. While the Mediterranean diet includes a small amount of dairy and red meat, the Nordic diet allows you to eat more dairy as long as it’s low fat (Skyr yogurt and low-fat milk are good examples). Nordic meals also encourage you to eat gamey meats like venison, rabbit, and bison in moderation.
In addition, Scandinavian fruits and vegetables mainly include berries and root vegetables — the produce that is available in the region. (The Med diet puts a bigger focus on tropical fruits and veggies.)
Another important difference? Cooking oils. “The Nordic diet features rapeseed (Canola) and sunflower oils whereas the Mediterranean diet features olive oil,” Michelle Rauch, MS, RDN, nutrition consultant for the Actors Fund Home in Englewood Cliff’s, NJ, tells Woman’s World.
Note: Not all canola oils are bad! As long as you avoid highly processed products and try organic and expeller-pressed options, you will be better off.
Testing the Benefits of the Nordic Diet
In a 2021 study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden wanted to better understand the benefits of the Nordic diet. So, they recruited 200 adults, all of whom had an elevated body mass index, or BMI (they were considered overweight). All participants also had a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.
The researchers divided the participants into two groups: those who followed a Nordic diet for six months, and those who followed a control diet (their regular diets, without any changes).
After analyzing blood and urine samples, the researchers determined a clear “winner” — the Nordic diet.
“The group … on the Nordic diet … became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group,” explained Lars Ove Dragsted, a researcher and head of section at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.
Even more interesting? Those who ate Nordic meals didn’t have to lose weight to see those benefits. “We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health,” Lars Ove Dragsted added.
Why might the Nordic diet improve health?
As the researchers pointed out, the participants who ate Nordic meals had a healthier composition of fats in their bloodstream than those who didn’t. Unsaturated fatty acids from foods like rapeseed (Canola) oil and salmon were the key to making that happen.
“This is a sign that Nordic dietary fats probably play the most significant role for the health effects seen here, which I hadn’t expected,” said Lars Ove Dragsted.
Do nutritionists recommend the diet?
This research provides great insights into the Nordic diet, but is this meal plan realistic and truly healthy? To find out, we asked Rauch.
“The Nordic Diet is a healthy way of eating since it includes few to no processed foods, no added sugar, and fewer saturated fats from animals,” Rauch says.
According to Rauch, here are the primary reasons that this diet may help you improve your health:
- Fiber. “Because of the abundance of plant foods and whole grains that make up their meals and snacks, the Nordic dietary pattern has more than double the dietary fiber of the average American diet,” she says. Indeed, eating plenty of fiber can help reduce the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
- Lean protein with omega-3s. “Seafood is a protein staple of the Nordic Diet,” she says. “Salmon, mackerel, sardines all are touted for their Omega 3 fatty acid content. Research suggests that Omega 3 fatty acids can help lower triglyceride levels, lessen plaque buildup in arteries, raise ‘good’ or HDL cholesterol, and reduce blood pressure, therefore lowering one’s risk for stroke and heart disease. Omega fatty acids are also found to have positive benefits against inflammation, depression, and eye and brain health.”
- Root vegetables. “Root vegetables are good sources of fiber, complex carbohydrates, potassium, folate, vitamins A, B, and C, and manganese,” she adds.
- “Complex” carbohydrates. “Wheat, barley, rye, and oats are the most regularly consumed whole grains in Scandinavian countries,” she explains. “Whole grains such as oats, barley, and rye which are found in the Nordic Diet are all ‘complex’ carbohydrates which are rich in fiber.”
Where should you start?
Ready to try out this diet yourself? Check out these recipes for your first day:
- A bowl of oatmeal with blueberries, almond butter, and low-fat milk.
- Rye bread topped with mashed white beans, lettuce, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
- Grilled salmon with a dollop of plain Skyr yogurt and dill, roasted root vegetables of your choice, and roasted potatoes.
With a little creativity and some extra meal planning, you may find that the Nordic diet becomes second nature. That will be great news for your blood pressure and sugar levels!