Diet & Food

Is the Nordic Diet Really Healthier Than the Mediterranean Diet? A Nutritionist Weighs In

You’ve probably heard the buzz about the Nordic Diet: Headlines are declaring it the healthiest diet in the world, even healthier than the Mediterranean Diet. So should you consider eating like a Viking? Here are my thoughts on the two diets, plus my pick for the ultimate healthy-eating regime.

The Nordic Diet and Mediterranean Diet actually share quite a few similarities. Both include plenty of vegetables and fruit; an emphasis on whole (rather than refined) grains; nuts, seeds, and pulses; seafood over meat; home cooked meals; and limits on sugary and processed foods.

One of the main differences between the two diets is the go-to oil. In the Mediterranean Diet, it’s olive oil—while canola oil predominates in Nordic cuisine. Because both oils provide health-protective monounsaturated fats, many experts have deemed the diets equally healthful. But in my opinion, the Nordic Diet takes nutrition a few steps further, with specific directives aimed at optimizing food quality, and connecting the dots between food production and the health of the environment. 

The Nordic region—which includes Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden—is known for progressive wellness-oriented lifestyle movements. (This may be one reason Scandinavians consistently rate as among the happiest people on the planet.) Their “hygge” philosophy is all about fostering a sense of contentment, while the “lagom” way of life refers to doing things in just the right amount—meaning living without excess, but also without limiting yourself too much. The concept of “friluftsliv” meanwhile has to do with spending time in nature.

This forward thinking is extended to the Nordic Diet, with recommendations that include eating organic produce whenever possible; choosing more seasonal produce; eating more wild foods; choosing higher quality meat but less of it; avoiding food additives; promoting animal well-being; and generating less waste. 

Then there are the research-backed health benefits of the Nordic Diet: One study showed that it protects against metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms (including high blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides) that increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The Nordic Diet has also been found to reduce the inflammation within fat tissue, which is linked to obesity-related health risks.

Overall, I give the Nordic Diet higher marks than the Mediterranean Diet. But there’s one caveat: I advise my clients to rely on extra virgin olive as their primary oil rather than canola. We have far more research about this good fat, and its production is more straightforward. (Avocado oil is another oil I recommend over canola.)

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Here are a few simple ways to incorporate other aspects of the Nordic Diet into your everyday life:

Include vegetables or fruit in every meal and snack. For example, add veggies to your omelet with berries on the side; fold shredded zucchini or chopped kale into overnight oats, along with a chopped green apple and nuts; snack on fruit with nuts or pumpkin seeds, or raw veggies and hummus.

Look for organic and local produce. Organic options aren’t always more expensive, especially when in season. Check the free Dirty Dozen app for the most important types of produce to buy organic.

Incorporate seafood three times a week, and make sustainable choices. Check out the free Seafood Watch app as a guide.

Replace refined grains with whole grains. Try Nordic style crackers, topped with mashed avocado or nut butter.

Eat tree nuts or seeds daily. Add nuts to oatmeal, salads, and sprinkle on top of cooked veggies. Snack on pumpkin seeds, or whip chia or sesame seeds into smoothies.

Include at least one serving of pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas) daily. You can make it the protein in a plant-based meal, or use pulses in place of whole grains (for example, serve fish on a bed of lentils rather than brown rice).

Eat less meat, and when you do opt for grass-fed, organic meat.

Make water your beverage of choice. Aim for 16 ounces, four times a day. And doctor it up with flavorful, antioxidant rich infusions, like veggies, fruits, and fresh herbs.

Cook at home more often. Even if you use healthy “shortcuts” like frozen veggies, or canned pulses.

Remain mindful of portions, both to prevent overeating, and avoid food waste. Eating more mindfully, without distractions (like your phone, TV, or laptop) can also help you naturally eat less.

For more on the Nordic Diet, check out this info from the University of Copenhagan. Skål (cheers!)

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.

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