What Is the Nordic Diet?

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Norway - Nordic Diet
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The Nordic diet is loaded with whole grains, berries, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products. It’s also low in added sugars and processed foods, and designed to be easier on the environment than other eating plans. In general, it's a very wholesome way to eat.

What Experts Say

"The Nordic diet focuses on produce, fish, and other foods common in Nordic cuisine. It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, except it emphasizes canola oil instead of olive oil. Experts agree the whole-food emphasis is a logical choice for a nutritious diet that may reduce disease risk."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

The Nordic countries are Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. Some researchers believe the Nordic diet is on par with the well-studied Mediterranean diet. Both feature anti-inflammatory foods that are high in omega-3 fats from fish, and both include lots of fruits and vegetables.

One interesting difference: The Mediterranean diet was codified by observing traditional ways of eating in the Mediterranean region. The Nordic diet, also called the New Nordic diet, was actually created to improve public health by a group of experts (scientists, nutritionists, and chefs). So while it does feature regional foods, they were selected for their healthfulness and environmental sustainability. That means some traditional foods are not included.

How It Works

The Nordic diet stresses whole, fresh, seasonal, local foods and strongly discourages heavily processed foods. So you'll need to cut back on added sugars, packaged foods, and fatty red meats in favor of locally caught fish, locally produced dairy products, and seasonal produce. Choosing local, seasonal foods means this diet has less impact on the environment than other eating plans.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Whole grains

  • Fruits and vegetables, especially berries

  • Dairy products

  • Fish

  • Healthy fats

  • Poultry and game

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Processed foods

  • Added sugars and sweetened beverages

  • Red meat

Whole Grains

At least 25 percent of the Nordic diet's calories come from whole grain products such as rye, barley, and oats. The diet also includes brown rice, whole grain pasta, and plenty of whole grain bread. Cereal is allowed on the Nordic diet too, as long as it doesn't have any added sugar or honey.

Fruits, Vegetables, and Berries

The Nordic diet includes at least one cup of fruit and one cup of vegetables each day, preferably organic, in-season, and locally grown. The diet is especially rich in berries: Plan to eat at least two cups per day of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, or the traditional lingonberries. Berries are low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals. They also contain beneficial phytochemicals, mostly in the colorful blue and red pigments.

Dairy Products​

Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese are included in the diet, but sweetened milk drinks and sugary yogurt products are not. Consume at least two servings per day.

Fish 

Eat fatty ocean fish like salmon, herring, or mackerel twice each week (or more), plus eat one meal made with low-fat fish, such as cod or haddock.

Fats 

The Nordic diet is fairly low in fat, but includes some rapeseed oil (canola oil in North America), plus trans-fat free margarine made with soybean oil. Unsalted nuts and seeds are also included.

Meats 

Poultry and game meats are allowed, as long as you choose cuts of meat that are low in fat. Choose chicken, turkey, and lean cuts of lamb and venison; avoid other red meats including beef.

Processed Foods

Avoid these as much as possible; they contain added sugar, salt, and fat, and are not local or environmentally friendly.

Added Sugars

Avoid foods made with added sugars, and sweetened drinks. One daily serving of fruit or berry juice is okay, but otherwise, stick with water, coffee, tea and low-fat milk.

Recommended Timing

There are no particular guidelines on the Nordic diet for when to eat. But the diet's originators do suggest that people eat mindfully and communally. Share meals with family and friends, and sit at the table instead of eating on the go.

Resources and Tips

You don’t need to fill your kitchen with Scandinavian fare to enjoy a Nordic style diet—just stock up the fruits and vegetables you already love and add lots of berries, fish, and whole grains. Switch to canola oil and low-fat dairy products and you’re all set.

Modifications

The Nordic diet is flexible enough to accommodate other dietary needs, such as dairy-free, gluten-free, or vegetarian plans.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or have small children who eat fish, you will need to watch out for the mercury levels in the fish you are eating and serving.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Nutritious

  • May have health benefits

  • Environmentally friendly

  • Sustainable

Cons

  • Expensive

  • Time-consuming

Pros

Nutrition

Like the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet delivers a lot of nutritional bang for the buck. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide lots of nutrients without a lot of calories. Colorful berries offer antioxidants. Fish provides omega-3 fatty acids. All the major food groups are represented, and the diet emphasizes whole foods, which are almost always more healthful than processed ones.

Health Benefits

Two studies, one lasting six months and one 12 weeks, have shown that the Nordic diet can lower blood pressure vs. an "average" diet. Another study, which analyzed a large group of patients over a long time period, suggests that the diet could help prevent strokes. A similar longitudinal study showed evidence that the diet is associated with a lowered risk of heart attack.

Environmental Awareness

When they created the Nordic diet, its originators were trying to address rising obesity rates in the Nordic countries. But they also wanted to promote a diet that would have less of an environmental impact than current dietary patterns.

Commercial farming and fishing can both be taxing on the environment, so the Nordic diet stresses the importance of eating food that's local and seasonal (meaning, less fuel for transporting it to market) and organic (fewer pesticides).

Sustainability

Not only is the Nordic diet sustainable in the environmental sense (it stresses foods that are produced using sustainable methods), it is also a manageable lifestyle change. It uses familiar foods—more of some, less of others—and is not overly restrictive. Plus, there's no measuring or calculating. Just stick with the recommended foods, and eat the others sparingly. (If you are using the diet to lose weight, you may need to be more cautious about calorie intake and portion sizes.)

While this diet has many benefits, it is not for everyone. For example, if you don't care for fish or don't have access to locally caught seafood (as many people in Nordic countries do), the Nordic diet might not be the right choice for you.

Cons

Expensive

All that fish and organic produce can be costly, even if you live somewhere where seafood is plentiful or there are lots of organic farms. These ingredients just cost more than conventionally farmed produce and inexpensive cuts of meat.

Time-Consuming

Finding and preparing these foods takes time, too. And since processed foods are not recommended, that means the majority of what you eat should be prepared at home. In addition, the diet's creators intended for meals to be consumed in a leisurely, mindful way.

How It Compares

The Nordic diet is often compared with the Mediterranean diet, and it does share many qualities with that diet and others that are considered healthy and balanced.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Nordic diet number 9 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 3.6/5.

USDA Recommendations

The USDA MyPlate guidelines encourage Americans to eat a balanced mix of protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products each day. The Nordic diet includes all of these and recommends reasonable proportions of each.

Similar Diets

Along with the Mediterranean diet, several other heart-healthy diets, both new and old, share qualities with the Nordic eating plan.

Nordic Diet

  • General nutrition: This diet emphasizes whole, local, seasonal foods, with lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, other lean proteins and whole grains. These foods are all sources of important nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. And since processed foods are not recommended, the diet includes few empty calories and unhealthy additives.
  • Practicality: While it's handy to plan meals and cook without worrying about calorie or carb counts, the ingredients on this diet can be hard to find, expensive, and time-consuming to prepare.
  • Flexibility: There are no strict rules for this eating plan. It's not meant to be a weight-loss plan, but instead to promote foods and preparations that could have health and environmental benefits. So there is room to interpret it in a way that works for you.

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: People who follow the Mediterranean diet eat mostly seafood, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains—ingredients that deliver lots of nutritional value.
  • Practicality: This diet also doesn't require any special foods, supplements, calorie or carb counting. But since it also focuses on whole foods over processed ones, plan to spend some extra time and money to follow it well.
  • Flexibility: Like the Nordic diet, this is not a formal plan that has firm guidelines. It's a set of preferences and recommendations, so you can use the ones that work for you and skip the ones that don't (although that may mean not reaping all the health benefits).

DASH Diet

  • General nutrition: The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet was designed to help patients lower blood pressure. There are no off-limits foods, but the idea is to eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy products, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts, while cutting back on red meat, sugary drinks, and sodium. It's a healthy, low-fat, nutritious eating plan for almost anyone, with or without high blood pressure.
  • Practicality: While the plan doesn't necessarily require calorie counting, you will need to track food-group servings (e.g., six to eight grain servings, two to three dairy servings, and so on) to stay on track. No special foods are required, and this isn't a commercial diet plan. Instructions and resources are available for free. But you might need to learn how to cook differently, with less sodium and fat.
  • Flexibility: You have the freedom to eat what you want within the recommendations, and DASH diet plans are available for several different daily calorie levels.

    Pescatarian Diet

    • General nutrition: A pescatarian diet is similar to vegetarian one, with the simple addition of fish and seafood. This makes it a lot like the Nordic and Mediterranean diets in terms of types of food and nutritiousness.
    • Practicality: Skip the calorie counting and food tracking and just eat the foods that align with the diet. Organic and local foods aren't required, which could keep costs lower. You'll still want to avoid processed foods to make this eating plan healthier.
    • Flexibility: Like its cousin, the flexitarian diet, this eating plan is very flexible. Eat the foods you prefer, simply skipping meat and poultry.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you're looking for an eating plan that's designed to be good for the Earth as well as good for your body, the Nordic diet might be a smart choice for you. It's nutritious and may even have health and weight-loss benefits. But the expense of sourcing local, seasonal, and organic products could put this diet out of reach for some.

    Remember that the diet will still be healthy even if not everything you eat is organic or local. The important part is focusing on whole, nutrient-dense foods as much as you can.

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