Mediterranean Diet too passé? Try the Nordic Diet

I’d only recently heard the Scandinavians had their own diet, and taking into account my Swedish heritage, penchant for trying new diets (for research purposes, of course) and preference for sardines, I figured this one might be right up my alley. Turns out, it just might be.

The Nordic diet, like the Mediterranean diet, emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein and healthy fats. According to the World Health Organization, both the Nordic and Mediterranean diets can reduce the risks of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps the only fundamental difference between the two is the type of oil recommended: olive for the Mediterranean and canola for the Nordic diet. Canola oil is made up of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, provides anti-inflammatory omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and may reduce LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol.

The Nordic diet is based on the Baltic Sea Diet Pyramid, which was created by the Finnish Heart Association and is similar to the 1992 USDA Food Guide Pyramid. The foundation of the Nordic diet is made up of common Nordic vegetables, fruits and grains (such as barley, rye and oats) in the middle, and fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy near the top. The very tip of the pyramid features foods that should be limited, such as processed foods and sweets. Foods unique to the Nordic diet include skyr (Icelandic yogurt, high in protein) and dense, whole-kernel rye bread (often found in air-tight packages, try the Mestemacher brand).

I recently read The Nordic Way, by Arne Astrup, Jennie Brand-Miller and Christian Bitz, which advocates specific ‘diet’ principles based on the results of the Diet and Obesity Genes study. The DiOGenes study followed overweight and obese adults and children in eight European countries who had recently lost weight, and found that a low-Glycemic Index (GI) diet, combined with a modest increase in protein, prevented weight re-gain and even promoted further weight loss. The book recommends a 2:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, with an emphasis on low-GI carbohydrates. Low-GI carbohydrates don’t raise blood sugar as quickly as higher-GI carbohydrates, and there are many proponents of this style of eating plan. Click here for a complete book review.

Additionally, the Nordic diet stresses the importance of satiety and palatability of foods. By eliminating processed foods, which often lead to overeating, the Nordic diet promotes eating until one is satisfied, rather than full. Because the diet is high in fiber and recommends healthy fats and protein, it’s easy to feel satisfied for longer periods of time.

Here are some ways to work a ‘Nordic style’ of eating into your life:

-Begin with smaller portion sizes. It’s easy to overeat without knowing it, so start with less food on your plate and have a second helping only if you feel hungry.

-Drink more water and less alcohol, juice and sweetened beverages.

-Limit your meat consumption and replace with plant-based proteins (such as chickpeas or lentils) and oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel). Try using other types of canned fish like you would tuna.

-Keep red meat to smaller, higher quality amounts. Give bison a try!

-Consider trying the Mestemacher bread. It comes in a couple varieties, and I recommend toasting it. I topped a piece with deli ham, Dijon mustard, cottage cheese and shredded carrots (a combination I found in The Nordic Way) and it was delicious.

-Replace some high-GI foods with lower-GI foods. Traditional white and wheat breads, cornflake cereal, rice milk, potatoes and corn syrup are high-GI foods. Substitute them with dense rye or pumpernickel bread, muesli, soy or dairy milk, sweet potatoes (or even a small amount of potato chips!) and real maple syrup, respectively.

Even just a few of these diet changes can make a big difference in your waistline!

Since reading The Nordic Way, I’ve incorporated more dairy into my diet with cottage cheese, as well as the dense bread recommended. I was already eating Siggi’s, an Icelandic yogurt, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. The book features multiple recipes with canned mackerel in tomato sauce, but I have yet to find any of that locally. I had a delicious mackerel sandwich on my trip to the Netherlands last summer, and I’d love to try to recreate it soon.


Book Review: The Nordic Way

The Nordic Way
By Arne Astrup, Jennie Brand-Miller and Christian Bitz
Pam Krauss Books/Avery (2017)
Reviewed by Holly R. Layer, RD


The Nordic Way, a Mediterranean-like diet, is based on the results of the 2010 Diet and Obesity Genes study in Europe.  The ‘DiOGenes’ study followed more than 1,000 overweight adults and children who had recently lost weight.  The study found that a small reduction in high-GI foods and a moderate increase in protein was able to curtail weight re-gain.  The book asserts that the obesity epidemic has coincided with an increase in refined carbohydrates.  While the diet structure is based on scientific research, the tone of the book is decidedly optimistic, stating that The Nordic Way is “the world’s best diet” and that by increasing intake of dairy protein, it “will help you get a flat stomach!”  In no uncertain terms, the book declares that, “no matter what, you will lose weight more easily and achieve significant health benefits if you replace the high-GI foods in your diet with their low-GI counterparts” because low GI foods promote weight loss and prevent weight gain.

Synopsis of Diet Plan:

The Nordic Way promotes two guiding principles: the 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, and that lower-GI carbohydrates are better for weight loss and maintenance.  Like the Mediterranean diet, The Nordic Way is heavy on fruits and veggies, emphasizes whole grains and highlights lean sources of protein.  Fat is less of a player in The Nordic Way, but healthy sources from cold water fish, nuts and canola oil are recommended, as well as low-fat dairy. The book asserts that a “modestly higher protein and slightly lower amounts of carbs” will enhance satiety, reduce hunger and increase metabolism.  The eating plan does not preclude any one food group or item, even if it is a high-GI carbohydrate, and many recipes feature higher-GI items, such as potatoes.  The book provides a list of GI values for common foods, alternatives to high-GI foods, sample weekly meal plans and more than 80 recipes.

Nutritional Pros and Cons:

While the tone of the book may leave something to be desired, the eating plan itself does not.  The book explains the difference between hunger and appetite, emphasizes the importance of satiety and the palatability of meals, and that ‘quick-fixes’ and deprivation diets don’t yield lasting results. It also doesn’t eliminate foods or food groups, including high-GI carbohydrates, but rather offers alternatives or to enjoy those items in moderation.  The Nordic Way eating style relies heavily on lower-GI carbohydrates and lean sources of protein, such as rye breads, lowfat dairy and fish. It also introduces the reader to new foods, such as whole kernel rye bread (the dense, moist variety) and skyr, Icelandic yogurt. The diet does not advocate for counting calories or restricting, but challenges participants to learn to stop eating when they are satisfied, which may happen sooner with slower-digesting carbohydrates and sufficient protein at each meal.

Bottom Line:

The book may over-promise results, but adopting a ‘Nordic-style’ eating pattern is perfectly healthy.  The book provides easy-to-understand explanations for the diet, as well as weekly meal plans and easy-to-prepare recipes with minimal ingredients.  Some readers may have trouble trying to figure out the 2:1 ratio, but the concept is relatively simple. Because the eating pattern is based on the results of a study of overweight individuals, it may appeal to those who are trying to maintain weight loss in addition to those trying to lose more weight.

As a side note, I’ve incorporated full-fat cottage cheese and that dense, rye bread into my diet, and had already been eating full-fat Icelandic plain yogurt and find I’m satiated for longer periods of time. I also like the simple combinations of foods, at they are often things I already have in my kitchen, such as deli meat on whole grain bread with cottage cheese and vegetables.