The Nordic diet may help you lose weight and improve health through a focus on whole, natural foods traditionally eaten by residents of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.
Relatively new to the diet scene, the Nordic approach became popular in the spring of 2015, with proponents pointing out that the obesity rates in Nordic countries are much lower than in America. (1)
Nearly 2 billion people classified as either overweight or obese worldwide in 2012. (2) If the trend doesn’t change, more than a fifth of children are likely to be obese by the year 2020, which translates to more obese adults in future years. (3)
Several studies have been done on how following a Nordic diet contributes to weight loss, and results indicate significant success in dropping extra weight, as well as modest improvements to other important health markers. (4)
Let’s take a close look at how the Nordic diet works, which foods to eat and avoid, as well as what results you can expect.
What’s On the Nordic Diet
Designed in 2004 by a group of experts including scientists, nutritionists and chefs, the Nordic diet contains double the fiber of the average Western diet, as well as lower amounts of fat and sugar. It also recommends eating twice as much fish and seafood. (5)
The abundance of seafood found in the Nordic diet is a good match for the traditional diet of populations living in those countries, and could be part of the reason the diet helps with weight loss.
Another consideration the creative team included was supporting sustainable farming practices, which is a vital ecological and economic issue worldwide.
The diet has a strong focus on foods usually classified as “healthy” by mainstream nutritional science.
Here are the general guidelines for the Nordic diet.
Foods to eat frequently:
- Fish and seafood
- Low-fat dairy products
- Nuts and seeds
- Fruits and berries
- Whole grains and rye breads
- Herbs and spices
- Canola oil (rapeseed oil)
Foods to eat moderately:
- Cheese and yogurt
- Free range eggs
- Game meats
Foods to eat rarely:
- Animal fats in any form
- Red meat
Foods to avoid:
- Processed meats like bacon, salami, and hot dogs
- Added sugar
- Fast foods
- Refined foods
- Drinks sweetened with sugar
- Any foods with additives or chemicals
It’s not necessary to count calories on the Nordic diet as long as you follow the food guidelines.
With the exception of canola oil, the plan is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, which uses extra virgin olive oil instead.
Since canola oil is a highly processed oil manufactured with high heat and toxic solvents, you may want to consider whether or not you want to follow this recommendation. Canola oils found on supermarket shelves in American were found to contain up to 4.2% trans fats. (6)
It’s not likely canola oil is traditional in any culture, but this is where the mainstream nutritional values exert their influence.
Since fruit doesn’t grow well in the northern climates, this aspect of the diet may not be particularly traditional either, although berries thrive in cooler areas and may have been included seasonally in historic Nordic diets.
From an environmental prospective, these recommendations make a lot of sense, and critics point out that any diet with refined foods, sugar and chemicals on the “avoid” list generally leads to weight loss.
Benefits of the Nordic Diet
The few studies done to date on the weight loss results of subjects following the Nordic diet are promising, especially in view of the fact that there’s no calorie restriction.
In one controlled, six-month trial, comparisons were made between a total of 147 obese participants, some following a typical Danish diet and the others following the Nordic diet.
The Nordic-style eaters lost 10.4 pounds, while the others dropped only 3.3 pounds. But like most other dieters, the big losers gained most of the weight they lost back when dieting over the next year or two. (7)
In another study spanning six weeks, the group eating a Nordic diet reduced body weight by 4%, which was significantly more than the control group eating a standard diet. (8)
Eating a healthy diet should result in a range of beneficial health effects including the prevention of chronic diseases and improvements in metabolic markers. The Nordic diet performs on that level as well.
Reduction in Inflammation
Any diet that reduces inflammation may decrease the chances of developing chronic diseases. (10)
Eating Nordic style resulted in a decrease in the inflammation marker C-Reactive Protein (CRP) in one of the two studies, but not in the other. (4, 7)
Genes in fat tissue associated with the expression of inflammation were positively impacted by the Nordic diet, which could decrease overall inflammation levels. (11)
Obese participants of the six-month trial mentioned above dropped both systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements by moderate amounts (5.1 and 3.3 mmHg, respectively), but changes in blood triglycerides were not statistically significant. The same was true for cholesterol levels. (9)
This wasn’t the only study that found a significant difference, either. Another 12-week study found a significant drop in diastolic blood pressure in participants with metabolic syndrome. (12).
If you have high blood pressure, this diet may significantly lower it. The exact results are going to vary from person to person, but it really doesn’t hurt to try it.
Cholesterol and Triglycerides
While you might imagine a diet containing so any heart-healthy foods would be great for your cholesterol, there is some mixed evidence that requires a closer look.
There are quite a few studies that found a reduction in triglycerides for those who ate a Nordic-like diet. However, the effects on both LDL and HDL are statistically insignificant, meaning that they may or may not be simple chance (13).
There was one study that noted a mild reduction of cholesterol, including LDL. This cholesterol is the type associated with heart disease (14).
The studies aren’t exactly conclusive over whether or not this diet will affect your cholesterol. But, the studies that have noted a change reported a positive change, so it isn’t likely to make your cholesterol worse than it already is.
Lowering Blood Sugar
There is some mixed evidence regarding blood sugar control as well. When you eat high amounts of simple carbohydrates, your blood sugar goes up. Fats and proteins help keep your blood sugar steady since they are slowly absorbed.
There are many different carbohydrates that are allowed on the Nordic diet. If you eat a whole meal of these, you probably will not see a difference in your blood sugar. However, if you stick to the healthy veggies and protein sources, you may notice a difference. It really is going to vary from person to person and depend on what exactly you’re eating on the diet.
One study did notice a small reduction in fasting blood sugar, though it is unclear how statistically significant this was (15). If you want to lower your blood sugar, be sure you’re balancing your meals to avoid a blood sugar spike.
It is interesting to note that the original Nordic diet from the 2017 book The Nordic Way emphasized incorporating a health carb-to-protein ratio and encouraged readers to choose foods with a low-glycemic index. If you follow this original diet, you may have a better chance of lowering your blood sugar than if you just ate whatever foods on the list you wanted.
This diet does come with some cardiovascular benefits. It encourages participants to eat heart-healthy foods like fish, apples, pears, root veggies, and oatmeal. These foods were associated with a lower risk of ischemic stroke according to one study from 2017 (16).
The Nordic diet is pretty similar to the Mediterranean diet, so you can expect the benefits to be pretty similar as well. Research for the Mediterranean diet is more established because it is more popular and regularly touted as the best diet out there.
Eating Out is Possible
You’ll be happy to know that eating out is very easy on this diet. All you need to do is choose restaurants that you environmentally friendly ingredients. Many of these are going to be small and locally-owned.
Once you get there, just choose a plate that falls in line with the dietary recommendations – which shouldn’t be too hard.
You Will Feel Full
There is no caloric restrictions to this diet, so you can eat until you are satisfied. Instead, the emphasis is placed on making healthy, environmentally friendly choices. They want you to eat your local foods as often as possible – but you can eat as much of those foods as you want.
If you’ve stopped other diets because you were always hungry, this one might be a great option to try. It is all about getting healthy without restricting yourself.
If you have specific dietary needs, the Nordic diet can be easily adaptable to fit those needs. If you are vegetarian, it is easy to focus on the nonmeat protein sources encouraged in the diet. For those with gluten intolerance, it is easy to leave off the grains. Plus, many of the grain suggestions are low in gluten anyway, so you may be able to eat them even if you can’t eat refined bread.
This diet is very nutritionally complete, so you won’t have to worry about any deficiencies. Surprisingly, this is actually quite rare. Many diets are lacking in one or more nutrients, especially those aimed to help you lose weight specifically.
Disadvantages of the Nordic Diet
It is Not Easy to Follow
While the Nordic diet is not particularly difficult to follow, it is far from the easiest diet out there. It can be time-consuming to prepare all of the foods and track down organic options as the diet emphasizes.
If you really go all-in on this diet, you will spend quite a bit of time selecting environmentally conscious foods and seeking out local farmer’s markets. This requires quite a bit of personal commitment.
Sticking to organic, locally-grown foods sounds wonderful, but it is difficult in practice. Furthermore, it is hard to just leave this part of the diet out, since it is a central component.
Not Particularly Good at Preventing Anything
While studies have found quite a few health benefits for this diet, none of them are particularly amazing. The diet is somewhat effective at helping people lose weight and manage diabetes. However, if you’re really concerned with either of these things, there are better diets out there for you.
Recipes Are Hard to Find
As you can imagine, most recipes written for the Nordic diet are not written in English. Because of this, it can be difficult to find recipes that fit into the diet unless you speak Danish. There are a few different books available, like The Nordic Kitchen. But, these books are few and far between.
It Is Time-Consuming
Out of all the diets out there, this one is particularly time-consuming. You have to spend quite a bit of time cooking from scratch. Many recipes take quite a bit of time, and cooking for all three meals is encouraged.
If time is currently short in your life, you may have significant difficulties following this diet.
The Bottom Line
The Nordic diet is based on whole, natural foods that can be sustainably produced, and this is likely the main reason why people lose weight following it.
More calories are taken from plant foods and less from animal sources, and this concept isn’t particularly revolutionary on the diet scene.
Plant-based diets have been shown to support weight-loss, drop blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and decrease the risk of developing chronic diseases. (12)
Many modern diet recommendations emphasize the consumption of fatty fish, where the Nordic diet encourages eating a wide variety of seafood. (13)
Summary: The Nordic diet is similar to other diets focused on eating whole foods, and can be a good tool for short-term weight loss, as well as having a positive effect on important health markers like blood pressure and inflammation.