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What Is the Nordic Diet and Is It Healthy?

By: Alyssa Langer, R.D., L.D.N.

You've heard of the Mediterranean diet, but now another traditional regional way of eating is gaining momentum.

Featured Recipe: Roasted Root Veggies & Greens over Spiced Lentils

Move over, Mediterranean diet; there's a new regional diet in town. The Nordic diet has been gaining popularity recently. It holds great promise for helping with weight loss and other health issues, but it's important to understand how this eating style works before you dive in and try it for yourself. Here, we break down what the Nordic diet is, what a typical day of eating Nordic looks like and what the science says.

Related: 8 Ways to Follow the Mediterranean Diet for Better Health

What is the Nordic diet?

The Nordic diet is inspired by the eating habits of several Nordic countries: Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. This region is influenced largely by what its unique location has to offer, and the traditional diet includes:

  • Root vegetables and other produce that grows better in colder temperatures
  • Seafood as a popular protein source
  • Smaller quantities of red meat
  • Fermented foods
  • Plenty of local berries

Similar to the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Nordic region has its own published set of philosophies called the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations (NNR), the latest of which was published in 2012. It emphasizes "food patterns and nutrient intakes that, in combination with sufficient and varied physical activity, are optimal for development and function of the body and that contribute to a reduced risk of certain diet-associated diseases."

Is the Nordic diet healthy?

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Yes. In fact, it's difficult to find any downsides to this diet.

Fish replaces red meat and less-healthy protein sources.

The NNR recommends replacing processed meat and red meat with fish, poultry or plant-based proteins due to "strong epidemiological evidence that high consumption of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease. Similar but weaker associations have been observed for red meat."

Fish is a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for both your heart and brain health. While fish can sometimes be pricey, it doesn't have to be. Check what's on sale, and don't forget about the frozen aisle. Even canned fish like salmon and tuna count. There are also plenty of plant-based protein sources you can try to incorporate into your diet, such as nuts, seeds and legumes.

Read More: 5 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat (and 5 to Avoid)

Processed foods are limited.

Limiting processed foods—they tend to be full of sodium and sugar—and products with additives, such as added sugar or preservatives, is one of the best things you can do for your diet. Cooking more at home, and in turn eating out less, is a great way to be in better control of your meals.

The diet is plant-based and filled with vegetables.

Currently, just one in 10 Americans consumes enough fruits or vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the Nordic diet's plant-based emphasis on local, fresh produce, you'll be sure to get a wide array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber by upping your fruit and veggie intake.

The diet also stresses consuming organic produce when possible. Eating seasonally means you'll get your produce at peak ripeness, when it contains the most nutritional benefits. If you can't find certain fresh fruits or vegetables locally when they're in season, don't shy away from frozen, which is a great alternative. (Just avoid any with added sugars, seasonings or sauces.)

Eating more plants also has environmental benefits.

According to a recent World Health Organization Health Evidence Network Synthesis Report, "The Nordic diet is predominantly plant based and locally sourced, thus ensuring more environmentally friendly production with reduced waste."

Homemade Kimchi

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Probiotics boost gut health.

Fermented foods are another advantageous component of this diet, as these foods have proven to be quite beneficial for digestive systems. Rich in probiotics, fermented foods can help with digestion, help maintain a healthy weight and even boost immunity.

Skyr (Icelandic yogurt) and kefir are commonly eaten in the Nordic region and, in addition to their probiotics, are rich sources of protein, calcium and potassium. According to the NNR, "high consumption of low-fat milk products has been associated with reduced risk of hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes."

Read More: 7 Must-Eat Fermented Foods for a Healthy Gut

Healthy oils are on the menu.

While the Mediterranean diet emphasizes olive oil, canola oil is the staple of the Nordic diet and is a pantry must-have. Both olive and canola oil boast plenty of monounsaturated fats and will help lower your bad (LDL) cholesterol and raise your good (HDL) cholesterol. Canola oil doesn't have all the beneficial antioxidants that olive oil touts, but it does have a higher smoke point, which is helpful for cooking at high temperatures.

Exercise is key.

No diet is complete without an activity component. If you want to take inspiration from the Nordic region, consider activities like rock climbing, skiing or skating. No matter the sport, just be sure you're getting active.

Read More: 6 Ways to Exercise Without Even Knowing It

A typical day on the Nordic diet

Breakfast

Yogurt with Blueberries & Honey

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Forget about the bacon, hash browns and pancakes—breakfast on the Nordic diet looks very different than the traditional American morning meal.

Dairy: To start, you'll likely have some form of cultured dairy product, such as skyr (similar to yogurt) or kefir (similar to buttermilk). If you can't find these items, feel free to reach for plain, unsweetened yogurt instead. Yogurt is a super-versatile ingredient. Try blending it into a smoothie, topping it with berries or turning it into kid-friendly breakfast popsicles.

Oats: Another popular breakfast option within the Nordic diet is porridge made with oats. Oats are a fantastic whole-grain breakfast choice full of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, all of which keep you full throughout the morning, helping to curb pre-lunch snacking. Overnight oatmeal makes getting ready in the morning easier.

Berries: Local berries, such gooseberries or lingonberries, are quite popular in the Nordic countries, but those particular berries may not be readily available in the U.S. Try to find whatever berries are local and seasonal near you; chances are they'll also boast an unique array of vitamins and antioxidants.

Fish: Another good source of breakfast protein, especially in the Nordic region, is fish. Add smoked salmon to your scrambled eggs, or top a flagel with smoked trout, both easy-to-find ingredients that will give your breakfast a protein and omega-3 boost.

Try These: Healthy Breakfast & Brunch Recipes

Lunch

Spiralized Beet Salad

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Lunch doesn't need to be a huge meal, and is usually quite simple. Typical Nordic diet lunch items may include fermented foods, eggs, salad, rye bread and plenty of seasonal, earthy vegetables.

Salad: Try a spiralized beet salad, which is a fun, kid-friendly way to incorporate the nutrient-rich root vegetable into your diet.

Fish: Instead of a traditional tuna fish sandwich (likely made with mayo and refined white bread), try a light tuna salad with yogurt, and pair it with whole-grain crackers. For a double hit of good-for-you fats, try salmon salad served in an avocado.

Read More: 6 Ways to Pack a Clean-Eating Lunch

Dinner

Roasted Salmon with Smoky Chickpeas & Greens

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A focus on vegetables should continue into dinner. Fish is often served, as are local, sustainable game meats (in small quantities).

Fish & meat: Check out your local grocery store's fish and meat counters. Look for sustainable, fresh (or frozen) fish and local, lean, grass-fed meats. A simple roasted salmon fillet alongside plenty of roasted veggies and quinoa is the perfect balance of protein, whole grains and vegetables.

Entrees with vegetables: For a heartier meat and vegetable dinner, look no further than this lean steak with carrots and turnips. During the winter months, try a beef and barley soup, full of protein and whole-grain fiber, or borscht with beef, another great way to use the colorful root vegetable while consuming a smaller quantity of meat.

Try These: Healthy Vegetarian Dinner Recipes

Dessert

Strawberry & Brie Bites

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Refined foods and added sugars should be kept to a minimum, according to the Nordic diet, as should alcohol. Instead, make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day, and for dessert, focus on fruit, a natural source of sugar that also comes with fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Try These: Healthy Dessert Recipes with Fruit

What the science says about the Nordic diet

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It may lower your risk of diabetes.

A study published in Nutrients in 2015 found that among the 57,000 participants (ages 50 to 64), those with a greater adherence to the Nordic diet (indexed by consumption of fish, cabbage, rye bread, oatmeal, apples, pears and root vegetables) had a significantly lower risk of type 2 diabetes in 15 years of follow-up.

It may aid in weight loss.

The Nordic diet may help with weight loss and heart health. A 2011 study from Sweden that was published in the Journal of Internal Medicine studied the impact of the Nordic diet on cardiovascular risk factors on 88 subjects over six weeks. The paper concluded that a healthy Nordic diet, which consisted of high-fiber plant foods, plus canola oil, nuts, fish and low-fat milk products, but was low in salt, added sugars and saturated fats, improved blood lipid profiles and insulin sensitivity, and even decreased body weight and blood pressure in certain subjects.

It may lower blood pressure.

Another study, this one published in 2013 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the Nordic diet can result in weight loss and decreased blood pressure in people who carry more weight around their stomach (more "centrally obese individuals"). Of the 181 participants (between the ages of 20 and 66), those randomly assigned to follow the Nordic diet for 26 weeks achieved a greater weight loss and drop in blood pressure than those who ate an average Danish diet (characterized by refined grains, meat, dairy and cheese, sugary products, convenience foods, and, to a lesser extent, low-fiber vegetables and imported fruit).

Watch: 7 Foods to Lower Your Blood Pressure

The bottom line

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It's unrealistic to think that people living in the U.S. can follow the Nordic diet exactly, but—without having to fly to Sweden—you can apply some key beneficial principles of the diet and adapt them to fit into your Western world.

According to the WHO Health Evidence Network Synthesis Report, "for non-Nordic populations, the principles of the [Nordic diet] may be more readily adaptable, healthful and sustainable than the food components themselves."

Let the Nordic region inspire you: take advantage of the seasonal produce at your local farmers' market; make fruits and vegetables the main focus of your meals; go meatless once or twice a week; replace meat with fish every so often; avoid buying processed snacks; and try using canola oil when you're cooking. Your body will thank you, and so will the environment.

Watch: Garlic Roasted Salmon & Brussels Sprouts

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