Let’s face it, Scandinavians can’t help being a little up themselves.
World’s best healthcare systems. High rates of literacy and education. The unemployed treated with compassion.
Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, dedicated herring eaters, are in the top 10 best places in the world to live, according to the United Nations Human Development Report.
Then there’s the Nordic diet, one of the healthiest in the world.
It’s similar to the heart-friendly, fish-rich Mediterranean but with a few quirks.
For example, your fish or meat (such as reindeer) is better caught in the wild rather than farmed.
Go for black bread if you must eat bread at all.
And lots of fresh berries. A luxury when eaten every day, but those Scandinavians suggest foraging, not opting for store-bought.
The health credentials of the Nordic diet are well established: It can help reverse or prevent obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
These health benefits tend to kick in following weight loss.
So far, so virtuous
Scandinavian researchers, perhaps looking for something new to brag about, have demonstrated that the Nordic diet “has positive health benefits, regardless of whether one loses weight or not”.
Dr Lars Ove Dragsted, a researcher and head of section at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, examined blood and urine samples from 200 people over the age of 50, “all with elevated BMI and increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease”.
In other words, these people were fat and not that fit.
The participants were divided into two groups: One was provided with foods from the Nordic diet plan; a control group was allowed to graze on their usual salts and sugars and unhealthy fats.
The groups were monitored for six months.
The group that had been on the Nordic diet “became significantly healthier”.
This group enjoyed “lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group”.
The experiment was certainly impressive in that the group on the Nordic diet were kept “weight stable”.
This means they were asked “to eat more if they lost weight”.
Dr Dragsted said that even without weight loss, the researchers could see an improvement in the group’s health.
“This was surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss,” Dr Dragsted said.
“Here, we have found this not to be the case.”
Other mechanisms are at play
The researchers suggest the “unique composition of fats in a Nordic diet as a possible explanation for these health benefits”.
Omega-3 and omega-6 unsaturated fats in the Nordic diet come from fish, flaxseeds, sunflower and rapeseed (Canola), among other things.
It’s no secret that these fats have health-giving properties, but the researchers have yet to accurately explain why these fats seem to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Dr Dragsted said: “By analysing the blood of participants, we could see that those who benefited most from the dietary change had different fat-soluble substances than the control group.”
He said these were substances “that appear to be linked to unsaturated fatty acids from oils in the Nordic diet”.
Dr Dragsted said this was “a sign that Nordic dietary fats probably play the most significant role for the health effects seen here, which I hadn’t expected”.
The Nordic diet, in short
The diet is adapted to the Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
The diet is based on ingredients that are produced locally and are thereby sustainable.
Recommended foods include vegetables such as peas, beans, cabbage, onions and root vegetables, as well as fruits, including apples, pears, plums and berries.
Also recommended are nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, and shellfish, as well as vegetable oils made from rapeseed, sunflower or flaxseed.
Low-fat dairy products are also recommended, as well as a significantly smaller proportion of meat than is generally consumed in Western diets.
Health benefits include a reduced risk of blood clots, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as cardiovascular disease in general.
The researchers stress that “weight loss, which frequently results from a Nordic dietary pattern, remains very important for the diet’s overall health benefits”.