What Is the Nordic Diet and Is It Healthy?
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You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet and some of the health benefit associated with its staple foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and lean proteins. Another similar diet called the Nordic diet has also been gaining popularity recently. It holds great promise for helping with weight loss and other health issues like high cholesterol and high blood sugar, 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 you can eat on the Nordic diet and what the science says about its healthfulness.
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 berries
It's important to note that, similar to the Mediterranean diet, these guidelines are focused on food groups rather that specific ingredients, so it is easily customizable to meet individual food preferences.
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 their recommendations for 2022 published in 2020. 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."
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Is the Nordic diet healthy?
Yes, the Nordic diet is healthy and encourages a slew of nutritious foods. In fact, it's difficult to find any downsides to this diet. Increasing consumption of fish helps limit the intake of red meat and less-nutritious 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. Canned fish like salmon, sardines and tuna are other budget-friendly ways to up your seafood intake. There are also plenty of plant-based protein sources you can try to incorporate into your diet, such as nuts, seeds and legumes.
Tips to follow the Nordic diet
Processed foods are limited.
Limiting processed foods—they tend to be higher in added 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 most consistent with your healthy eating pattern (and can help you save money).
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. This also can help you customize the diet based on ingredients that are local to your area, rather than needing to choose traditional Nordic foods.
Eating seasonally also 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 affordable alternative. (Just be mindful of any 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."
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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 milk products has been associated with reduced risk of hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes."
Other fermented foods that are great for gut health include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kombucha.
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. Other heart-healthy oils that fit in the Nordic diet pattern could include flaxseed, walnut, sesame and avocado oils.
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. But the best type of physical activity for you is one that you enjoy and can stick with. No matter the sport, just be sure you're getting active.
Sample Nordic diet meal plan
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Here are some ingredients that could be on the menu when following a Nordic diet-style eating pattern:
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 diet, 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.
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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, whole grain bread and plenty of seasonal 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.
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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 a great 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.
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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.
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Health benefits of the Nordic diet
It may lower your risk of diabetes.
A study published in Nutrients 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 study in Eating and Weight Disorders found that adherence to the Nordic diet significantly improved body weight, but the benefits didn't stop there. 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 blood pressure in certain subjects as well.
It may lower blood pressure.
Another study, this one published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the Nordic diet can result in lower diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number in your blood pressure reading) and the mean arterial pressure (which is the pressure on your arteries from your blood pumping through them). After 12 weeks of a diet high in whole grains, rapeseed oil, berries, fruits, vegetables, fish, buts and dairy products, the participants showed significantly improved markers of cardiovascular health.
The bottom line
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 preferences and individual needs. 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."
Here are some of the major takeaways from the Nordic diet: 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 a heart-healthy oil when you're cooking. Your body will thank you, and so will the environment.