With a focus on whole grains, berries, and fish, Northern European cuisine has some heart-friendly features.
If you’ve never heard of the Nordic diet, you might imagine a plate of those Swedish meatballs sold at Ikea. In fact, this eating style focuses on healthier fare, including an abundance of the plant-based foods nutritionists always encourage us to eat. And while the data are limited so far, some studies suggest that following a Nordic eating pattern may foster weight loss and lower blood pressure—both of which are good for the heart.
As the name suggests, the Nordic diet features foods that are locally sourced or traditionally eaten in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Developed in 2004 in collaboration with the acclaimed Copenhagen gourmet restaurant Noma, the diet emphasizes the use of seasonal, healthy, regional foods. (It doesn’t necessarily represent how most Scandinavians eat on a daily basis, however.)
The Nordic menu
Nordic diet staples include whole-grain cereals such as rye, barley, and oats; berries and other fruits; vegetables (especially cabbage, potatoes, and carrots); fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring; and legumes (beans and peas).
“The Nordic diet shares many elements with the Mediterranean diet,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Mediterranean diet—considered by some as the best eating pattern for preventing heart disease—also emphasizes plant-based foods. Both diets include moderate amounts of fish, eggs, and small amounts of dairy but limit processed foods, sweets, and red meat.
The main difference is the type of oil each diet favors. While the Mediterranean diet features olive oil, the Nordic diet uses rapeseed oil, also known as canola oil. Like olive oil, canola oil is high in healthy monounsatured fat. But it also contains about 10% alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid similar to the omega-3s found in fish. These essential fats may help lower blood pressure and heart rate and improve blood vessel function, which likely explains why they might help prevent heart attacks and stroke. Fatty fish—the richest source of omega-3s—are recommended in both diets (about two to three servings a week).
The Nordic diet also emphasizes high-quality carbohydrates: cereals, crackers, and breads made with whole-grain barley, oats, and rye. Americans may be familiar with Swedish Wasa crispbreads, most of which are made with whole grains. In Denmark, a dense, dark sourdough bread called RugbrØd is popular. In those and other Scandinavian countries, more than half the grains people consume are whole grains. “But in the United States, only about one-tenth of the grains we eat are whole grains,” says Dr. Hu. Whole grains provide a wealth of heart-protecting nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals, he notes.
Eating lots of berries is another unique aspect of the Nordic diet that may account for some of its health benefits. Re-search by Harvard scientists has linked eating plentiful amounts of berries (such as blueberries and strawberries) to less weight gain and a lower risk of having a heart attack. Berries are excellent sources of plant chemicals known as anthocyanins, which seem to lower blood pressure and make blood vessels more flexible.
Most Americans don’t eat a lot of berries, nor do most Europeans, notes Dr. Hu. A traditional Nordic diet might feature berries that thrive in northern climates, such as lingonberries (similar to cranberries) and bilberries, which resemble blueberries.
Good for the environment?
For many experts, including Dr. Hu, the Nordic diet offers another bonus: it’s environmentally friendly. For one thing, plant-based diets use fewer natural resources (such as water and fossil fuels) and create less pollution than meat-heavy diets. In addition, eating locally produced foods also reduces energy consumption and food waste, says Dr. Hu. And while the Nordic diet makes sense for those living in Northern Europe, people everywhere can adopt those same eating edicts no matter where they live.
While the Nordic diet isn’t proven to prevent heart disease to the same extent as the Mediterranean diet, it’s clearly a step above the average American diet, which has too much processed food and meat to be considered heart-healthy.
“People who really like berries, rye bread, and canola oil should go ahead and enjoy a Nordic-style diet rather than waiting 10 years to get more evidence,” says Dr. Hu.