Move over Mediterranean diet. There’s another hot and healthy diet making its mark in the culinary world: the New Nordic Diet, with an emphasis on new. You may think that the people of Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland just eat a lot of dairy, smoked fish and meat (like Swedish meatballs and reindeer) and few fruits and vegetables. Or perhaps you associate their cuisine with fermented shark meat, grilled sheep’s head and pickled ram’s testicles? Not any more.
The New Nordic Diet was developed in 2004, when food professionals and chefs from the five Nordic countries met in Copenhagen to define a new regional cuisine, which, in contrast to traditional eating habits, would be healthier. Though the recent trend of Nordic-inspired restaurants, such as Noma in Copenhagen and Acme in New York City, is to incorporate complex cooking methods and charge high prices, the basic diet is simple and affordable, emphasizing seasonality and sustainability of ingredients, avoidance of food additives and minimization of waste.
Rich in plant foods (often foraged), the diet includes lots of root vegetables, cabbage (and other crucifers), dark greens, apples and pears, berries (such as ligonberries and bilberries) and whole grains (such as rye and oats). Fish (such as salmon and herring) is also prominent, along with some wild game (such as elk, inherently low in fat) and small amounts of dairy. Other wild foods include moss, mushrooms, nettles, garlic and even ants. Fresh herbs include dill, chives and fennel. For dessert, how about some barley pudding?
In many ways, the New Nordic Diet is very similar to a Mediterranean diet but relies on rapeseed (canola) oil instead of olive oil and differs in its types of produce (few tomatoes here), simply as a reflection of what the region’s climate, soil and water naturally—and best—produce.
The Nordic diet: heart and weight benefits
Several studies, such as one published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 2013, have found that the New Nordic Diet improves blood cholesterol levels in people with cardiovascular risk factors, compared to the usual Nordic diet or a typical Western diet. And some (but not all) studies have found that the diet lowers blood pressure and improves insulin sensitivity. Being on the diet for just 6 to 18 weeks has been found to have benefits.
Interestingly, in two studies (including one published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition), people on the diet lost significant weight, though they weren’t told to restrict calories, which indicates that they felt satisfied. Another study found that people who ate six characteristic foods of the diet had a lower risk of premature death over 12 years.
There are no studies comparing the New Nordic Diet to a Mediterranean diet, but it’s fairly safe to say that both, in their ideal forms, are healthful—as would be any predominantly plant-based cuisine that includes such components as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and unsaturated vegetable oils, and shuns refined grains, added sugars, fatty red meats and highly processed foods in general. In essence, the New Nordic Diet is really nothing more than a regional interpretation of the tenets of healthy eating.
Unless you forage your own wild foods or visit restaurants that specialize in the cuisine, however, it’s hard to eat exactly like a New Nordic in America—but you can incorporate the diet’s basic components and follow its general philosophy, which is to prepare simple meals using local foods.