The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, nuts, and fresh vegetables, has been lauded for its heart health benefits. But a new Scandinavian study claims that a healthy Nordic diet plan, loaded with produce like berries and root vegetables, is also associated with lower levels of cholesterol and inflammation.

Lowering both cholesterol and inflammation decreases risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

In a randomized dietary study located in regional centers of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland, researchers examined the effects of a healthy Nordic diet on standard health markers including blood pressure, inflammation, lipid profile, and insulin sensitivity.

The 166 participants who completed the study were middle-aged white Scandinavians with metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, such as high body mass index and high blood sugar. The results were published in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

The Healthy Nordic Diet Plan

For at least 18 weeks, participants followed either a restricted Nordic diet full of local produce, nuts, poultry, and fish, or a standard diet, which contained more red meat, white bread, and potatoes.

The diet was much closer to the New Nordic cuisine championed by Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi of the world-famous restaurant Noma than to a traditional Scandinavian smorgasbord Followers of the diet cut out meat-based and sugary treats, like sausages and pastries, and focused heavily on local plant-based foods and fish. Leverpostej was out, but lutefisk and pickled herring stayed in.

The healthy Nordic diet plan emphasizes the following:

  • Whole grains like rye, barley, and oats making up at least 25 percent of the daily diet
  • Vegetables, including cabbage, legumes, and root vegetables
  • Fruits like apples, pears, and plums
  • Berries, including strawberries, black currants, and bilberries
  • Rapeseed oil (also known as canola oil) for cooking and flavoring
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Fish in more than 3 meals per week
  • Poultry and other low-fat white meat, or game meat
  • No sugar-sweetened drinks

The control group, on the other hand, used butter instead of canola oil, half the amount of the fruits and vegetables, less fish, and no limitations on refined grains, red meat, or sugary drinks.

Otherwise, both diets had similar calorie content and differed mainly in the amount of dietary fiber, salt content, and fat quality, wrote the researchers.

All the participants were instructed to maintain their normal patterns of physical activity, smoking, and drinking throughout the study period.

Healthy Nordic Diet Lowers Cholesterol

By the end of the study period, the participants who followed the healthy Nordic diet plan had significantly lower levels of harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and higher levels of beneficial high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol compared to those who ate a standard diet.

They also had less harmful fat particles circulating in their blood, said Lieselotte Cloetens of Lund University, a biomedical nutrition researcher who was involved in the study.

How Does the Nordic Diet Plan Compare to the Mediterranean Diet?

The underlying message is not new — as emphasized by Harvard University's "Healthy Eating Plate" guide — a healthy diet is heavy on vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains, and instead of butter and other fatty oils, olive oil and canola oil are preferred.

Sugary drinks, red meat, and refined grains should be avoided. These components of a typical Western-style diet have been shown to increase risk for early death and cognitive decline.

The Mediterranean diet fits Harvard's healthy eating criteria, with plenty of plants, nuts, beans, legumes, whole grains, fish, and olive oil, together with limited dairy, red meats, and added sugars. Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that it prevents cognitive decline.

The healthy Nordic diet specified in this study may have similar benefits, since it shares the Mediterranean plan's emphasis on plants and healthy oils.

Previous research found that a healthy Nordic diet helps weight loss compared to a standard fatty Danish diet. The next step, said Cloetens, is to see how well the diet can help people keep off the pounds.

For healthy and delicious recipes, and more about New Nordic cuisine, check out the "Principles of Good Flavor" described by Claus Meyer of Noma.

Source: Uusitupa M, Hermansen K, Savolainen M J, et al. Effects of an isocaloric healthy Nordic diet on insulin sensitivity, lipid profile and inflammation markers in metabolic syndrome - a randomized study (SYSDIET). Journal of Internal Medicine, 2013.