The health benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet (high in fruit and vegetables, oily fish and with healthy fats such as olive oil) are well established in the public conscious. Ever since a meta-analysis (a study compiling and analysing results from a number of other studies) found evidence that it was associated with better health (1), the Mediterranean diet has been the focus of attention and health advice.
But now a new dietary pattern is creating a buzz in the nutrition community – the Nordic diet. The traditional Nordic diet is low in processed meats and high in wholegrain (oatmeal, barley and dark rye bread), root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (e.g. cabbage) oily fish (such as herring and salmon), rapeseed and wild Nordic berries (i.e. the evocatively named cloudberry, bilberry and loganberry). It’s important to note that research is focusing on the traditional Nordic diet as ironically the modern Nordic diet is actually considered to be linked with poorer health, featuring high fat dairy products, red meat and low in vegetables. Basically, we are talking herring and rye bread rather than the meatballs you get at Ikea (although they do have their own merits!).
Recent studies suggest that the traditional Nordic diet might be beneficial for health in terms of longevity (2). There are other advantages to the Nordic diet pattern too for Northern Europe in terms of cost and sustainability. The Mediterranean diet pattern might be easy to follow whilst you’re on holiday in Greece but on a rainy day in Leeds….not so much. Back home in Northern Europe, the non-native foods of the Southern European Mediterranean diet can be perceived as exotic and often costly. No wonder then in research studies those asked to commit to a Mediterranean diet often cannot last the duration of the study. The bottom line is that despite the potential health benefits, very few people are able to stick to a Mediterranean diet outside of Southern Europe. There is also the issue of air miles and carbon footprint involved in transporting non native foods and the issue of overall sustainability of food supply for the future.
Could the Nordic diet catch the British public’s imagination?
In terms of public health, I’m not sure initially how acceptable the idea of the Nordic diet would be. I’d never even heard of a cloudberry before and I can’t remember the last time I ate rye bread. In general we have a limited fish culture in the UK, ironic really given that we are an island nation. On the surface, the Nordic diet appears to be a very different way of eating to what we are used to but actually it might be easier to adapt and put into practice than at first glance given our more similar climates. We do have lots of wild species of berry in this country and foraging seems to be quite en vogue at the moment. We also have a tradition of consuming root vegetables and rapeseed is grown throughout the country. If the popularity and reputation of the Danish restaurant ‘Noma’ is anything to go by then the traditional Nordic diet might become a more palatable health recommendation than the Mediterranean diet.
So is it time to don your best Sarah Lund woolly jumper, strap on your cross country snow shoes and go and forage for some berries? Of course, there isn’t enough evidence yet to fully recommend this pattern of eating. However, it’s likely that we will be (warning – you are about to hear a fish based pun) herring more about the Nordic diet in the future and I for one would quite like to try some cloudberries.
2) Olsen A, Egeberg R, Halkjaer J, Christensen J, Overvad K, Tjonneland A. Healthy aspects of the Nordic diet are related to lower total mortality. J Nutr. 2011;141(4):639–44