The Mediterranean diet—rich in beans, fish, fresh vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and whole grains—is widely considered a heart-healthy way to lower cholesterol, lose weight, and reduce a variety of health risks. The diet is based on traditional foods eaten in Greece, southern Italy, and Spain. But what if you live someplace where cultural differences and accessibility to certain foods make following the Mediterranean diet difficult?
That’s a question residence of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have been wrestling with. Their answer? The new Nordic diet, which emphasizes wild fish (like herring), and game (like reindeer and moose), mushrooms and other fungi, berries, whole grains, cabbage, and root veggies.
A team of researchers led by Matti Uusitupa, from the institute of public health and clinical nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland, decided to put the Nordic diet to the test by conducting a study of 166 obese patients in four Scandinavian countries. About half ate their regular diet, the rest ate the same number of calories, but followed the Nordic diet. After 24 weeks, the regular-diet patients had the same levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) as before. But the Nordic diet group showed a 4% decrease (compare this to the 6-9% reduction attributed to the Mediterranean diet). According to Uusitupa, subjects on the Nordic diet also had reduced levels of inflammation-causing blood compounds that research has shown to be associated with increased risk of Type II diabetes and heart disease.
The study was published in the Journal of Internal Medicine. We should point out, however, that not everyone is enthusiastic about the Nordic diet. Britain’s National Health Service, for example, argues that while the Finnish study was well-designed, there’s no evidence the Nordic diet is better (or worse) than the average Nordic diet, that it doesn’t reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve diabetes outcomes, or have any effect on weight or blood pressure.
At this point in time, we can’t recommend the Nordic diet—at least until there’s more conclusive evidence that it offers significant, long-term benefits. In case you can’t resist the urge to rush out and stock up on moose and bilberries, be sure to check with your healthcare provider first to see whether the Nordic diet is appropriate for you.