How healthy is the Nordic diet? What evidence is there for this? Are there any possible side effects? What is the overall verdict?

Is the Nordic diet the ‘new Mediterranean diet’ as far as health is concerned? That’s what some media reports have suggested. 

  • What is the Nordic diet?
  • What evidence is there for its health benefits?
  • How does it compare with the Mediterranean diet?
  • Are there any possible harmful side effects?
  • Is the Nordic diet worth considering? 

What is the Nordic diet?

The Nordic diet (sometimes also known as the New Nordic diet or the Baltic Sea diet) is a combination of foods traditionally eaten in Scandinavian countries: Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. It contains plenty of fibre-rich plant foods, such as cabbage, onions, beans, peas and root vegetables, as well as potatoes, herbs, wild mushrooms and vegetable oils. The diet also includes fish, seafood, free-range meat and game. The ‘new’ or ‘healthy’ version of the diet differs from the traditional Nordic diet in two important respects; it contains low-fat dairy products and limited salt.

The Nordic food pyramid shows that the diet is based on eating plenty of fresh, fibre-rich plant foods (the lower half of the pyramid), while meats and sugary foods make up the very top of the pyramid and are eaten in smaller quantities and less often.

HealNorDietWhat evidence is there for its health benefits?

Lower mortality rates

One major benefit of the diet is a lower level of mortality, particularly among men. That’s the verdict of a 2011 study which followed the health of 57,053 Danes, aged 50 to 64, for 12 years. The lower mortality rate in this group seemed to be due to eating traditional Nordic food: fish, cabbage, rye bread, oatmeal, apples, pears and root vegetables. Whole-grain rye bread was the part of the diet most consistently associated with the lower mortality in men.

Better overall physical performance

Better overall physical performance among women (but not men) with an average starting age of 61, after being on the diet for ten years. Physical performance was measured using the ‘Senior Fitness Test’, which involved walking, arm curl exercises and chair standing. The study was published in 2016.

Weight loss

Some initial studies had suggested a healthy Nordic diet can help with weight loss. However, a study of 27,544 women, whose progress was followed over ten years, found no association with weight loss.

Other health benefits

There have been several large-scale, long-term reviews of Danish patients (involving more than 55,000 men and women over an average of 13.5 years), with results reported in 2015 and 2017. These reviews concluded that a healthy Nordic diet eaten by middle-aged Danes was associated with:

Note that the evidence so far is for an association between a Nordic diet and a number of health benefits, rather than a proven cause and effect.

However, a situation in which there is a strong association with health benefits, and no harmful side effects are reported, is usually a positive sign.

How does it compare with the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet and the Nordic diet share common traits: they are both rich in nutrient-dense foods (mostly plant-derived foods) and low in energy-dense foods (mainly of animal origin).

The Mediterranean diet also has a reputation for being healthy and has evidence to support that reputation. So, how do the two compare?

A study of 38,428 Swedish women, published in 2018, found that both diets were associated with lower death rates, but that the lowest death rates were associated with the Mediterranean diet

Another 2018 study looked at the effects of the two diets on the longer term disability of 962 Finnish men and women with an average age of 61.6 years. In this study, the Nordic diet showed more positive results, leading the researchers to conclude that the Nordic diet may offer more protection against disabilities in the Nordic population

Meanwhile, a 3-year study of 554 women aged 65 to 72 found that those who followed both the Mediterranean diet or the Baltic Sea diet (an alternative name for the Nordic diet). Those on Baltic diet appeared to lose less muscle compared with those who followed neither diet. The findings were published in 2017. 

Taken together, these three studies comparing a Mediterranean diet with a Nordic diet suggest that the Mediterranean diet may provide more protection against death, and the Nordic diet provides more protection against disability.

                                                   Both diets protect against muscle loss (sarcopenia).

In addition, a 2020 Editorial concluded that both diets can contribute to reducing risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, being overweight or obese, hypertension, hyperglycemia and hypercholesterolemia

Are there any possible harmful side effects?

We have found no reports that a Nordic diet produces any harmful side effects.

So is the Nordic diet worth considering?

Research so far has suggested an association between the new Nordic diet and a number of health benefits, including reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke; longer life for men; reduced risk of disability, and better overall physical performance for women.

There is no proven cause and effect yet, but no harmful side effects have been reported. On balance, a Nordic diet seems worth pursuing, particularly if you live in a colder country where the ingredients of a Mediterranean diet are less readily available or are more expensive.

Cabbage, onions, beans, peas, root vegetables and berries are all readily available in the UK, so the Nordic diet is well-worth considering as part of the NHS's 5-a-day fruit and vegetable programme. Also, readily available and worth including are other significant parts of the Nordic diet such as herbs, fish, seafood and free-range meat.

Reviewed and updated January 2021. Next review date, December 2024


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