Along with the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic approach to food has long been held up as a blueprint for healthy eating and nutrition. The diet is rich in foods including apples and berries, roots and cabbages, rye, oats and barley, low-fat milk products, rapeseed oil and fish.
Previous studies have been unable to determine if a healthy Nordic diet predicts overall physical performance in old age. Yet research has shown a positive effect of a healthy Nordic diet on several cardiovascular disease risk factors such as blood pressure and inflammation as well as all-cause mortality.
Finnish researchers have now begun an investigation into whether a healthy Nordic diet was associated with measures of physical performance ten years later.
The study enrolled 1072 participants from the Helsinki Birth Cohort Study. Dietary intake information was collected using a Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ), within which subjects reported how often each item was consumed over the previous 12 months.
This frequency was recorded using categories ranging from ‘never or seldom’ to ‘at least six times a day’.
At the mean age of 71 years, participants’ physical performance was measured using the Senior Fitness Test (SFT), and an overall SFT score was calculated. Physical activities involved include a six-min walk test, arm curl and chair stand.
Diet was assessed using a validated 128-item A Baltic Sea Diet Score, which was also used as a measure of a healthy Nordic diet. The score included Nordic fruits and berries, vegetables, cereals, polyunsaturated fatty acid to saturated fatty acid (PUFA:SFA) and trans-fatty acids ratio, low-fat milk, fish, red and processed meat, total fat and alcohol.
Physical performance was assessed using five measurements of physical fitness. These were the number of chair stands completed during 30 seconds to assess lower-body strength, arm curl to assess upper-body strength, chair sit and reach to assess lower-body flexibility, back scratch to assess upper-body flexibility and a six-minute walk to measure aerobic endurance.
The results found women in the highest fourth of the Baltic Sea Diet Score had on average five points higher SFT score compared with those in the lowest fourth. No such association was observed in men, however.
Women with the highest score had 17% better result in the six-min walk test, 16% better arm curl and 20% better chair stand results compared with those with the lowest score.
The researchers hypothesised a healthy Nordic diet may prevent oxidative stress and inflammation, and thus have beneficial effects on overall physical performance.
“In the present study, we observed that among those who had the highest score to a healthy Nordic diet had higher intake of several antioxidants including beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, compared with those with the lowest score,” the researchers noted.
“In addition, the dietary patterns associated significantly with better overall physical performance were higher intakes of fruits, berries and cereals, which all are linked with reduced oxidative stress and inflammation.”
This observed association is supported by previous research. One study showed that oxidative stress and inflammation may play a key role in the decrease of skeletal muscle strength and mass as well as overall physical performance. While another two studies showed positive associations between antioxidants and physical performance.
Nordic diet benefits
The researchers also said the results revealed encouraging opportunities to promote physical performance in older age with better adherence to a healthy Nordic diet.
“It is known that even small improvements in physical performance have major impacts on a person’s ability to live independently, and thus subsequently may decrease healthcare costs," they wrote in the British Journal of Nutrition.
“In addition to physical performance, a healthy Nordic diet has other health benefits as it improves the blood lipid profile and insulin sensitivity, lowers blood pressure and inflammation and is linked with a smaller waist circumference.“
Source: British Journal of Nutrition
Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1017/S0007114515005309
“A healthy Nordic diet and physical performance in old age: findings from the longitudinal Helsinki Birth Cohort Study”
Authors: Mia-Maria Perälä, Mikaela von Bonsdorff, Satu Männistö, Minna K. Salonen, Mika Simonen, Noora Kanerva, Pertti Pohjolainen, Eero Kajantie, Taina Rantanen and Johan G. Eriksson.