It’s difficult if not impossible to define an “American” diet. The U.S is so diverse, so multicultural and so successful at importing foods from elsewhere; and yet one thing remains sadly true on a general level: we’re not terribly healthy. As a nation we consume too much of the bad stuff (added sugars, saturated fats and sodium) and not enough of the good stuff (vegetables, fruits, dairy and healthy oils). Obesity rates continue to rise, not only among adults, but also among our children.
To fix the problem on an individual level, many of us have started embracing the sensible eating styles of other cultures. The Mediterranean diet, famous for its outstanding health benefits (including possibly keeping your brain young), was named the best overall diet for 2018 by U.S. News & World Report (a tie with the DASH diet). Now there’s another regional diet catching our appetites: the Nordic diet, and it’s highly recommended by dietitians and doctors.
What makes it so special and how can we incorporate it into our daily lives?
The Nordic Diet: Fish, Veggies, Grains, Fermented Foods and Wine
“The Nordic diet is rooted in tradition back to the Vikings and is comprised of natural fresh foods consumed by residents of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland,” explains Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist and nutrition and weight loss expert. “It consists of high amounts of nutrient rich, single foods with vegetables being the corner stone of this diet, and meats only filling the left over space. Nordic vegetables are cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, roots and peas. Fish varieties include salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and dried salty cod. Fruits do not grow abundantly in the region; therefore, berries tend to be the primary source of fruit. The grains allowed are the Nordic type of rye, wholegrain, barley and oats. Fermented fish and dairy add to the epicurean experience. Plenty of hydration is encouraged, whereas red meat, processed foods, added sugars and refined foods are to be avoided. Wine sits on the top of the pyramid.”
“Eating local foods is emphasized which could be a main reason why its popularity has increased in recent years, making it a sustainable diet,” Dr. Petre adds. “Savory flavors and fermented food with spices make it a culinary experience.”
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Red Meat: Gamy and lean
While the Nordic diet emphasizes seafood, it does incorporate red meats to an extent.
“Definitely some beef dishes, but also game meats that we don’t eat as much of here,” Jamie Shifley, a registered dietitian and health coach. “You may see larger animals like caribou, bison (which I’ve found ground at Costco and think tastes really good) but also deer, or venison, which tends to be much leaner than beef because although red meat, the animal hasn’t been raised to be fatty the way we raise cows here.”
Eat Your Heart Out (And Keep Your Heart Healthy)
As a cardiologist, Dr. Petre recommends the Nordic diet for the same reasons she recommends the Mediterranean diet.
“The Nordic diet is rich in healthy unsaturated fats and fiber, with low amounts of sugar, saturated fat, and processed foods,” Petre says. “In many ways it is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which is shown to help prevent heart disease. Both diets are high in Omega-3s which lower blood pressure, increase good cholesterol, reduce bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of diabetes. Additionally, they are associated with lowering the risk of cancer and improving inflammation and overall cardiac health. A 2013 Nordic study found that individuals on the diet experienced improved blood lipids and inflammation.”
Fiber and probiotics combat digestive issues and obesity
Shifley also champions the diet, noting its staples as beneficial for long-term health.
“Much research shows the benefits of consuming fatty fish, as well as lean fish [both integral to the diet, which] also includes dried fruits and whole grains as staples,” Shifley says. “These foods include many essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as fiber, which can help with satiety, lowering cholesterol, blood sugar control and potentially with lowering risk of colon cancer.”
Additionally, fermented foods, another aspect of this diet, are great for gut health, as they “contain good bacteria (probiotics) that can help populate our guts and may provide protection again many conditions including obesity, digestive issues, diabetes, and more.”
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Potatoes made the right way, and a low-profile superfood: cabbage
The types of root vegetables (potatoes, rutabagas and carrots, for instance) that the Nordic diet uses are also packed with nutrients.
“Potatoes get a bad rap [in America] because we do a lot of fried potatoes,” says Shifley. “But in the Nordic diet they’re usually baked, grilled or boiled. They’re loaded with potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B and some iron and magnesium. They do have a lot of carbs but also fiber which helps damper the affect of carbs on blood sugar; that said, people with diabetes do need to be a bit more careful with potatoes.”
Cabbage is another cornerstone of the Nordic diet, a leafy green that is an excellent source of nutrients.
“Cabbage has similar benefits to kale,” says Shifley. “It’s a cruciferous vegetable — very leafy — and very low in calories and high in fiber so it will help fill you up when want to control calories. It’s high in vitamins K, C, and B as well as in several antioxidants, particularly those high in sulphur, which may help lower the risks of certain types of cancer such as esophageal cancer.”
Canola oil is a Nordic staple, but is it so different than olive oil?
One of the core cooking ingredients in the Nordic Diet is canola oil, marking one of its biggest differences from the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates olive oil.
“This has been a source of concern, as olive oil has a better Omega-3 profile and contains more antioxidants and polyphenols found in olives,” says Dr. Petre.
You could certainly swap out canola oil for olive oil, but Shifley notes that the latter does have less of a taste, making it more appealing to cook with when you’re making something that doesn’t naturally pair with that distinct olive flavor. Additionally, while canola oil is a bit weaker in some nutritional aspects, the dissimilarities are far from significant.
“They’re both calorie dense unsaturated fats, which helps keep down the bad cholesterol, LDL, and also gives a boost to the HDL, the good cholesterol that acts like a vaccuum [in the body], grabbing the fatty buildup and flushing it out of body,” Shifley says.
Not up for herring? Swap it out with salmon
Just as you can replace the canola oil with olive oil (provided you don’t mind the flavor), you can also use a fish like salmon to replace say, herring or mackerel, which are both very common in the Nordic diet but less popular here. The most important thing to look for when shopping for fish is to check for freshness. You may also want to find out where the fish was sourced.
“When you go to the fish market at your grocery store, talk to the person at the counter who knows where the fish came from. This is one thing we can all be better at when shopping for fish,” says Samantha Bartholomew, a registered dietitian and the manager of nutrition communications at Fresh Communications. “Aside from that, I don't think you can go wrong with the fish you choose.”
But will it help me be happier?
We may be changing up our eating habits to slim down or get more energy or simply to try something new — but we’re also often seeking something deeper from our diets: wellbeing.
Might embracing the Nordic diet help boost our happiness? The answer is, quite possibly yes — but only insofar as any sensible, balanced diet can.
“The important key in looking at these diets, whether it’s the Mediterranean, DASH or Nordic, is the emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and more fish over meat,” Dr. Prakash Masand M.D., the founder of Centers of Psychiatric Excellence (COPE) tells NBC News BETTER. “With these food groups we see lower rates of obesity, which we know to be a driving force in medical illness including psychiatric ones such as depression.”
Dr. Masand finds that there tends to be a bit of idealizing and even “fantasizing” about the happiness of other cultures such as the Nordic one here in America, and underscores that no diet in and of itself can turn a sad person happy; that said, diet is one of the first thing he asks about when assessing the psychological health of a client.
“The three pillars of good mental health are sleep, exercise and diet,” he says. “But if you want someone to adhere to a good diet it has to be one that fits into what they usually love to eat. If you say ‘oh, switch entirely to the Nordic diet,’ it’s just not going to happen. But if you say, ‘hey, add some more fish and less red meat’ — that’s reasonable.”
Quick tips for embracing the Nordic diet
As Dr. Masand notes, making a 100 percent switchover to another culture’s diet doesn’t make much sense for most people. But there are simple ways to incorporate aspects of this eating regimen in your everyday life.
Aside from piling on the seafood, vegetables, and fermented foods Shifley says you’ll also want to:
- Reach for quality snacks. “Tree nuts are a great [Nordic-style] snack. Of course, berries are also big as are pickled vegetables — not just cucumbers but all kinds. Rye crackers are another good one.”
- Go easy on the red meats as well as any processed carbohydrates. “You won’t see white breads or pastas in this diet.”
- Avoid processed foods. “This is really the key. No chips or cookies.” Unless, of course, you’re up for an occasional splurge. If you do, enjoy it and then make a healthier choice the next meal.
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