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.