Scandinavia – the land of incredible healthcare systems, more paid holiday days than anywhere else in the world and subsidised tertiary education, amongst many other qualities. With all these amazing assets, who wouldn’t be inspired by the Scandinavian lifestyle? They must be doing something right, considering recent studies have shown that the Nordic countries are home to some of the happiest people in the world.
With recent hype around diets such as the Mediterranean diet and veganism, the Nordic countries have had one of their greatest and most beautiful secrets practically pushed to the side and concealed from the global media spotlight: the Nordic diet.
What is the Nordic diet?
As the name suggests, the Nordic diet features foods that are native, traditional and easily sourced in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. The Nordic Diet, also termed the New Nordic Diet, was designed in 2004 by a team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen to define a new, healthier regional cuisine compared to what was being suggested at the time.
The Nordic Diet features many elements of the infamous Mediterranean diet including a predominantly plant-based diet with an added emphasis on fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, fish, lean meat and small amounts of dairy with little processed foods and red meat.
Hallmarks of the Nordic diet
More fish, less red meat
Fish is an essential in the Nordic diet and makes up a large portion of the meat component of the diet. Fatty fish are particularly common and emphasised – such as salmon, mackerel and herring – and are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids which are great protectors against heart disease and stroke. The Nordic diet involves eating fatty fish approximately three times a week, therefore making it quite a staple.
According to the guidelines of the diet, non-fish meat consumption should be lean and of a high quality and should be sourced from free-range livestock.
Fruits and vegetables
Berries are a unique and prominent aspect of the Nordic diet. Berries such as cloudberries, rose hip, lingonberries and strawberries are high in Vitamin C and anti-oxidants which may reduce the risk of certain diseases and cancers. Other common fruits include orchard fruits such as apples, pears and plums.
Root vegetables are staples due to their ability to withstand the cold climate of the Nordic countries, and include white potatoes, turnips, parsnips, carrots and beetroots. Root vegetables are particularly high in fibre, magnesium and potassium. Cabbage and dark leafy greens are also commonly eaten in the Nordic diet.
High-quality carbohydrates are emphasised in the Nordic diet and have been a part of the traditional cuisine for thousands of years. Cereals made with wholegrain oats, barley and rye are an important element of the diet. Rye bread is a Nordic staple, particularly in Denmark where it is termed Rugbrød, and is arguably one of the best grain sources of fibre available, containing up to three times more fibre than regular white wheat bread. In addition to being a great source of fibre, rye is rich in magnesium, B vitamins, iron, zinc and antioxidants.
Small amounts of dairy and eggs
Eggs and low-fat dairy are encouraged in small amounts and include regular milk, fermented milk, cheese and skyr. Skyr is a cultured dairy product from Iceland with the consistency of strained yoghurt and is often compared to Greek yoghurt.
Oils low in saturated fat
Rapeseed oil is to the Nordic diet as olive oil is to the Mediterranean diet. Like olive oil, rapeseed oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats whilst keeping it low in the saturated fats department. Rapeseed oil also uniquely contains alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega 3 fatty-acid similar to the omega 3 fatty-acids found in fish.
Low-fat vegetable spreads and margarines with no added plant sterols are used on breads and for cooking as common replacements to their dairy-counterpart, butter.
Should you try the Nordic Diet?
The Nordic diet has been proven to be effective in maintaining weight loss, reducing blood pressure, protecting against heart disease and stroke and reducing the overall risk of disease – similar outcomes to what the Mediterranean diet has to offer. As both diets are primarily plant-based with a focus on plentiful fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, fish, lean meats and unsaturated oils and shun red meat and processed foods, it can be said that either has the ability to be just as good as the other depending on where you live and the types of foods available.
For us Australians, whilst it may be a bit hard to hunt our own wildlife and gather exotic berries, the basic philosophy of eating local produce and producing simple, healthy meals can still be applied to your own diet no matter how or what you eat. Bonus points if you’re a fan of fish, berries and rye bread, however – you’re already on the right path to adopting a healthful Nordic diet!
A component of the Nordic diet often not seen or addressed in other diets is its environmental-friendliness. Plant-based eating produces less wastage, less pollution and uses fewer natural resources than meat-laden diets. Adopting a plant-based diet, no matter which type of diet in particular it may be, is clearly beneficial to not just the environment but to your health and wellbeing.
Aussie alternatives to some Nordic staples
Following a Nordic diet, or any type of diet as a matter of fact, is not a case of ‘following the rules’ at all times. In Australia, we are lucky enough to have access to an extremely vast array of nutritious produce from countries all over the globe, including our own! Adapting a diet to suit your circumstances is the key to giving yourself every success of mastering the art of eating as healthily as you possibly can for yourself. Here are some more accessible alternatives to some potentially tricky-to-find Scandinavian staples:
Nordic: Mackerel, salmon and herring
Australian: Mackerel, salmon and sardines
Nordic: Cloudberries, rose hip and lingonberries
Australian: Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries
Nordic: Wild animals such as reindeer and elk
Australian: Kangaroo, rabbit and venison
Nordic: Rugbrød (Danish rye bread)
Australian: Rye bread (sourdough and wholegrain varieties)
Nordic: Rapeseed oil
Australian: Extra virgin olive oil and high oleic sunflower oil
P.S. If you’re lucky enough to live in Adelaide, South Australia and are interested in what the Nordic diet has to offer, have a venture down to a little café serving modern Scandinavian food called ‘New Nordic’, located in Prospect. Have a sneak peek at their Instagram! @newnordic.kitchen
Victoria Lekkas is a Bachelor of Applied Science/Masters of Dietetic Practice student at La Trobe University completing the second year of her four-year long journey to becoming an accredited practicing dietitian. Growing up in a Greek family, Victoria is passionate about the Mediterranean diet and issues surrounding gut health, intolerances and helping people achieve their optimal level of health. She is currently exploring all aspects of nutrition and dietetics and discovering where her skills and passions lie, and hopes to one day open her own private practice.