What is the Nordic diet?


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You may have seen the "Nordic diet" popping up in headlines over the past couple of weeks. It's received substantial media attention due to a recent study that claims it could benefit people with metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes, and researchers hope it could become the Mediterranean diet for people who live in Nordic countries.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole grains, lean meats and fish, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, and encourages eating fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week. It's associated with a decreased risk for heart disease and has been shown to reduce blood pressure and "bad" LDL cholesterol.

But in places like Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway, some of these types of foods aren't readily available. You can't find olive oil at every supermarket and bodega like you can in the United States. As an alternative, researchers devised a new diet centered around seasonal, local foods like herring, canola oil and berries common in the region.

The recent study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, separated 166 people into a healthy Nordic diet group and a control group representing the average Nordic diet, and followed them over a course of 18 to 24 weeks in 2009 and 2010. The healthy diet group ate whole grains, canola oil, root vegetables, berries — such as currants, bilberries and strawberries — and three fish meals, emphasizing fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. This group also avoided sugar and red meat. The control group consumed butter instead of canola, ate fewer fruits and vegetables, and had no restrictions on sugar, red meat or white bread.

The results showed no changes in weight loss, blood pressure or insulin sensitivity, but a slight improvement in the ratio of bad cholesterol to good cholesterol, as well as inflammation. Lieselotte Cloetens, a biomedical nutrition researcher and co-author of the study, was quoted in NPR's coverage of the research saying that the "change in the inflammation marker could result in a 20% to 40% reduction in the risk of Type 2 diabetes for people on the healthy diet."

But despite all the recent hype, not everyone is convinced. The United Kingdom's National Health Service reported on its website that the study failed to provide substantial evidence that they Nordic diet is more effective than the average (control group) diet at improving components of metabolic syndrome and showed no proof that it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

"It is also worth noting that ... this study was not directly comparing a ‘healthy’ Nordic diet with a ‘healthy’ Mediterranean diet," the article stated. "Until there is reliable evidence comparing the two dietary patterns, this research cannot tell us which is the best way to keep the heart healthy."