Meet the Nordic Diet, the Mediterranean Diet’s Eco-Friendly Little Cousin

Photo: Getty Images / Nata Bene
You want to eat more fruits and veggies—but you definitely don’t want to ban bread, pasta, and dairy. You believe what you nosh can boost your brain. You’d like to try and buy more locally and seasonally to support small farmers and the environment. Sounds like you’re the perfect candidate for the Nordic diet: the cold-climate answer to the Mediterranean diet.

Developed in 2004 by a group of researchers, dietitians, and doctors in collaboration with the Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant NOMA, the Nordic diet was adapted from the Baltic Sea Diet Pyramid to encourage people in Nordic countries (i.e. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) to eat more fresh, seasonal, local foods. “Like in rest of the world, obesity rates were rising because people were eating a more traditional Western diet, which is meat-heavy with more processed, packaged foods,” says Christy Brissette, R.D., president of 80-Twenty Nutrition.

The broad strokes of the Nordic diet: an emphasis on fresh, local fruits and vegetables, seafood, and whole grains. Sound familiar? That's because it shares a lot of similarities with its southern twin, the Mediterranean diet (and while we're at it, the Okinawa diet), but with its own regional flair.

When it comes to health benefits, the two eating plans are about equally matched. “In terms of weight-loss potential and heart-health improvements, the Nordic diet seems to be in line with the Mediterranean diet," says Brisette—although since it's newer, she notes that there's not as much research on it as the Mediterranean diet. A review by the World Health Organization found that both the Mediterranean and Nordic diets reduced risk of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. And a study by the University of Finland found the Nordic diet reduced inflammation in people with metabolic syndrome, which may help manage weight.

So how else do the Nordic and Mediterranean diets compare? Brissette and Jessica Cording, R.D., break it down for us.

1. They’re both big on plant-based foods

The (not-so-secret) health weapon in both the Mediterranean and Nordic diets is a hyper-focus on fruits, veggies, nuts, and legumes. Plants are the only food that contain fiber naturally, and fiber boosts heart health, controls weight, and supports digestion, Brissette explains. Plants are also the only source of phytochemicals—antioxidant compounds that fight free radicals—which have been shown to fight aging, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative conditions, she adds.

However, the types of fruits and veggies on each menu varies. The Mediterranean diet features warm-weather fruits and veggies like salad greens, tomatoes, eggplants, pomegranates, figs, and dates. The Nordic diet serves heartier, starchier fruits and veggies that grow in colder climates, including root vegetables (carrots, beets, turnips), apples, plums, and pears. But you’ll still reap the same health benefits. “If you compare pomegranate to wild blueberries, you’re getting similar nutrients, antioxidants, phytochemicals,” says Brissette.

Want to learn more about the Mediterranean diet? Check out this episode of You Versus Food

2. The Nordic focus is local—which is good for your health and the environment

Eating locally could have added benefits. “There’s some evidence that the nutritional value can be higher in wild versus conventionally-grown food,” says Brissette. Conventionally-grown produce is artificially protected from pests and tough weather. But wild foods have to fend for themselves—and they do so by producing more of the same phytochemicals that are so good for our health. “Think of plants as having their own immune system. When it’s conventionally grown, it doesn’t have to fight back as hard. You don’t get these phytochemical levels you’d get in the wild, when it faces challenges and gets stronger,” says Brissette.

Adapting your menu to eat locally is also better for the earth, especially when the focus is on plant-based foods. “Enjoying the healthy foods that grow in your community supports local farmers and fisherman and reduces your carbon footprint compared to something that has to travel halfway around world to get to your grocery store,” adds Brissette.

3. Both encourage moderate amounts of fatty fish

Another healthy upside of the Nordic and Mediterranean diets is that you’ll get a lot of your protein from fish—in the case of the Nordic diet, that's salmon, mackerel, and herring. These fish are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower your triglyceride levels to reduce heart disease risk. “Some research suggests omega-3s could be beneficial for emotional and mental health as well as your cognitive function,” adds Cording.

4. Neither plan will make you cut carbs

Unlike Paleo or keto, you won’t have to cut whole-grain cereals, crackers, and breads on the Mediterranean or Nordic diets. While the Mediterranean diet includes grains like farro and whole wheat in bread and pastas, the Nordic diet is bigger on a variety of cold-weather grains like barley, oats, and rye. That gets bonus points for the Nordic diet: these types of grains serve up soluble fiber, versus the mostly insoluble fiber (aka roughage) in Mediterranean grains.

While all fiber is good for your digestive system and heart, soluble fiber absorbs water to help you feel full and more satisfied. It also traps and removes cholesterol from your body—an added benefit for your heart. Some research even suggests that soluble fiber helps stabilize blood sugar levels, a big plus for people with diabetes. “I always say everyone should eat like they’re at risk for diabetes to stabilize their energy throughout day, so including soluble fiber is really important,” says Brissette.

5. Small amounts of dairy are a go on both

Both eating plans include a bit of calcium-rich dairy—plain low-fat Greek yogurt on the Mediterranean diet and plain low-fat skyr yogurt on the Nordic diet. Both types of yogurt are processed in a way that bumps up protein content compared to the normal stuff (about 15 grams of protein in five ounces of Greek and skyr yogurts versus six grams in the same portion of standard yogurt). Just opt for low-fat options to keep your saturated fat intake in check, says Brissette.

6. They both limit processed foods, sweets, and red meat

The Mediterranean and Nordic diets limit (but don't outright ban) red meat and processed foods. By cutting back on these foods, you’ll reduce your intake of saturated fat and sodium, which helps reduce your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. Since most of the sugar in both diets comes naturally from yogurt, fruit, and grains, it’s generally better for you (and more nutrient-dense) than the added sugars found in processed foods. “You get all the benefits that come from eating whole foods, like protein and calcium. That’s very different from having a sweetened flavored yogurt,” says Brissette.

7. The Nordic diet isn't as great when it comes to healthy fats

While Mediterranean fare is slathered in olive oil, the Nordic diet uses canola oil because the rapeseed plant (which is used to make canola oil) grows locally. Cording says this is the one big downside to the Nordic diet. Olive oil is generally a better pick than canola oil, since canola is higher in omega-6 fatty acids. Most of us already get too much omega-6, since it’s found in the sunflower and safflower oils often used in processed foods. An imbalance in omega-6s to omega-3s, in turn, can lead to inflammation, which does a number on your body. “It’s very easy to go overboard on omega-6. If you need a neutral oil, you can sub for avocado or canola oil. Otherwise, stick with olive oil,” Cording says.

8. Both diets encourage social eating

We’re all guilty of cramming lunch over the kitchen sink or in the car—and it’s not helping our health. “Eating that way doesn’t tune you into your body. You sometimes don’t register that you’ve eaten because you scarf it down,” says Brissette. The Mediterranean diet celebrates taking the time to sit with friends and family at meals. Likewise, the Nordic diet encourages people to prep and enjoy meals at home. “A lot has to be said for social eating,” Brissette says.

Want to give the Nordic diet a go? Variation is key for maximizing health benefits, so consider blending the Nordic with the Mediterranean diet. For the many Americans who live in a climate with very cold winters and hot summers, you’ll be able to buy more locally-produced foods if you follow the Nordic diet in the winter and the Mediterranean diet in the summer, says Brissette.

Either way, make sure you find a style of eating that works for you. “They both are very similar and offer a lot of the same benefits. Go with what feels sustainable and enjoyable,” says Cording. “Don’t be afraid to start small if you’re afraid to overhaul your diet. Start with one change you can make and go from there.”

Curious about the Mediterranean diet? Here's your essential shopping list. And here are some Mediterranean-friendly Instant Pot recipes to try out.

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