What are the main ingredients of the ‘Nordic diet’? Berries, vegetables, fish, whole grains and rapeseed oil, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.
This approach to eating can deliver benefits in terms of both sustainability and health, they claim. The diet can ‘prevent obesity’ and reduce the risk of NCDs including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Until now, research around the positive health benefits of a Nordic diet have primarily focused on its impact following weight loss. However, a new analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and partner institutions – including Uppsala University in Sweden and Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark – looks more generally at the positive health impact, regardless of whether one loses weight or not.
“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,” explained Lars Ove Dragsted, a researcher and head of section at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.
Together with researchers from Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, Dragsted examined blood and urine samples from 200 people over the age of 50, all with elevated BMI and increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The participants were divided into two groups – one provided foods according to Nordic dietary recommendations and a control group on their habitual diet. After six months of monitoring, the result was ‘clear’.
“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. 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,” Dragsted elaborated.
‘Fat makes us healthy’
Instead of weight loss alone, the researchers pointed to the unique composition of fats in a Nordic diet as a possible explanation for what they described as ‘significant’ health benefits.
“By analysing 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,” Dragsted reflected.
Fats in the Nordic diet come primarily from fish, flaxseeds, sunflower and rapeseed, among other things. As a whole, they constitute a ‘very beneficial mix’ for the body, although the researchers have yet to accurately explain why these fats seem to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
“We can only speculate as to why a change in fat composition benefits our health so greatly. However, we can confirm that the absence of highly processed food and less saturated fats from animals, have a very positive effect on us. So, the fat composition in the Nordic diet, which is higher in omega-3 and omega-6 unsaturated fats, is probably a considerable part of the explanation for the health effects we find from the Nordic diet, even when the weight of participants remains constant,” concluded Dragsted.
Defining a Nordic diet
The Nordic Nutrition Recommendations were adopted by dietary experts in 2012 and will be updated this year. The diet is adapted to the Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. It is based on ingredients that are produced locally.
Recommended foods include vegetables such as peas, beans, cabbage, onions and root vegetables, as well as fruits, including apples, pears, plums and berries. Also recommended are nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, and shellfish, as well as vegetable oils made from rapeseed, sunflower or flaxseed. Finally, low-fat dairy products are also recommended, as well as a significantly smaller proportion of meat than currently consumed.
The diet contains fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and plant materials that have a positive effect on our health and, among other things, reduce the risk of blood clots, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as cardiovascular disease in general.
A weighty issue
While the researchers were able to uncouple the health benefits of following a Nordic diet from their impact on weight, they nevertheless stressed that weight loss ‘frequently results’ from a Nordic dietary pattern and remains very important for the diet’s overall health benefits.
"This study simply shows that it is not only weight loss that leads to the benefits of this diet. The unique composition of fats plays an important role as well," noted Dragsted.
‘Analysis of the SYSDIET Healthy Nordic Diet randomized trial based on metabolic profiling reveal beneficial effects on glucose metabolism and blood lipids’
Journal of Clinical Nutrition