New Research Says This Type of Diet Can Lower Cholesterol and Blood Sugar—Even if You Don't Lose Any Weight

We would have guessed it was Mediterranean diet, but it's not!

Directly above shot of various nordic diet food items on table in kitchen
Photo: Getty Images / Maskot

What comes to mind when we say, "heart-healthy diet" and "diabetes-friendly diet"? Chances are, the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet or flexitarian diet might come to mind, or maybe some form of plant-based eating.

New research published in the February 2022 edition of the journal Clinical Nutrition suggests that another longevity-wise lifestyle can also check both those boxes. People who follow a Nordic diet for just 6 months can lower blood sugar and bad cholesterol levels. While much of the previous research related to the Nordic diet's health benefits study it in relation to weight loss, this analysis found that the positive health impacts can be yours even if you don't want to, don't need to or simply don't lose any weight while following a Nordic meal plan.

What Is the Nordic Diet?

Based on the way residents of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland) naturally eat, diet experts formalized the Nordic diet's definition in 2012. Light on red meat, the Nordic diet is more of a "meat on the side" meal plan than a meat and potatoes one. The diet promotes consuming plenty of fish instead, plus healthy fats from nuts, seeds and vegetable oils made from seeds. To round out the recommendations, a typical Nordic diet also includes low-fat dairy, whole grains and produce that grows well in the region's cold to mild climates, including apples, beans, berries, cabbage, onions, peas, pears, plums and root vegetables. (Learn more about the Nordic diet and score a Nordic diet one-day meal plan if you're interested in giving it a shot yourself.)

This plant-forward, healthy fat-rich menu has been shown to lower risk for heart disease. It's also sometimes recommended as a potential weight-loss diet; the fact that the Nordic diet is naturally rich in fiber, healthy fats and lean protein means the typical follower would feel satisfied by fewer calories. With that said, while you certainly don't want to eat too little, if you're eating more calories than you're burning throughout the course of the day, it will be tough to lose weight and keep it off long-term.

What This Nordic Diet Study Found

As we mentioned, many of the earlier deep dives into the Nordic diet have examined the health benefits that might come along with weight loss from this type of eating pattern. But this study, which involved monitoring blood and urine samples from 200 people over the age of 50 (all with an "overweight" or "obese" body mass index and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease), found that weight loss has little to do with it.

"It's surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play," Lars Ove Dragsted, a researcher and head of section at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, tells University of Copenhagen.

The 200 participants were split in half; one group was given foods that fit the Nordic diet and the other was told to eat as they would have prior to the study. After six months, the verdict was in, Ove Dragsted confirms: "The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group," he adds in the study recap. "We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health." (ICYMI, this is similar to another recent discovery that we can boost longevity and overall health through a consistent exercise routine—even if weight stays stable.)

The biggest benefits are courtesy of the heart-smart fats, which, as we mentioned, mainly come from fish, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds and rapeseeds.

"By analyzing the blood of participants, we could see that those who benefited most from the dietary change had different fat-soluble substances than the control group. These are substances that appear to be linked to unsaturated fatty acids from oils in the Nordic diet. This is a sign that Nordic dietary fats probably play the most significant role for the health effects seen here, which I hadn't expected," Ove Dragsted continues.

The research team says they hope to investigate further to see why these fats have such a big impact on blood sugar and cholesterol, but they admit some of the biometric improvements may also be related to lower consumption of saturated fats and processed foods, too.

The Bottom Line

Since this is just one study, and a single, half-year report that analyzed data from 200 people who all live in a similar area, it's definitely not enough evidence for us to take away the crown from the Mediterranean mindset as the world's healthiest diet. Still, it's optimistic news, can help direct future research and is certainly heartening to hear that another often-overlooked option can also deliver a bevy of wellness benefits—even for those who don't lose any weight.

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