Your brain is not separate from your body, and we are quite literally made of what we eat. It follows then, that the more nutrient-dense, brain cell building material and the less damaging toxic material we put into our bodies, the healthier our brains will be. Of course, there’s a little more to it than that.
We have reported before on the neuroprotective intentions of the MIND Diet, and have updated this archived content if you are interested in exploring it. Even more recent, and possibly more significant, however, are the data on cognitive decline (which can lead to dementia) prevention by following the prudent Nordic diet. We thought our customers might be interested in some of these fascinating nutritional discoveries.
All though most of the research is relatively new, large cohort data does show that adhering to the New Nordic Diet was associated with even slower cognitive decline than the MIND Diet, Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet, and Baltic Sea Diet . Researchers of one particular study concluded that elderly subjects with high adherence to the Nordic diet had an 80% reduced risk for clinically-significant cognitive decline compared to those on a “Western” diet .
This data sounds promising… at least for those of northern European descent. The same study noted that while the Mediterranean diet has been linked with healthy cognition in North American studies and western European studies, it has not been as successful for northern Europeans. The strongest possible explanations are the availability, affordability, and palatability of foods typically grown in Mediterranean climates, but sold in northern regions. This hypothesis also proposes that eating locally sourced foods may have both environmental impacts and quantifiable health impacts within the body.
What is the Nordic diet (a.k.a. the New Nordic Diet or Prudent Nordic Diet)?
The Nordic region is located in northwestern Europe, comprised of scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark), Iceland, and Finland. The Nordic diet is made up of foods available locally and seasonally in this relatively cold region of the world. While it does include some traditional fare, it is designed around health benefits, so some traditional foods (think IKEA’s swedish meatballs) are still discouraged or minimized. Much like the Mediterranean diet, it is mostly plant based, focused on whole grains, legumes, and berries. The diet is rich in fatty fish species found in the cold Baltic sea, but instead of olive oil, it relies on canola (rapeseed) oil for cooking .
An important, yet non-nutritional benefit of the Nordic diet is its low impact on the environment . As the diet is based around locally available foods, the carbon footprint of ingredient sourcing is very small… if you live in the Nordics. If you choose to follow this diet as a westerner, it is recommended that you adapt the suggested foods to fit your local region to reduce your own carbon footprint. Try subbing cranberries for the nordic lingonberry or blueberries for bilberries, for example.
What can you eat on the Nordic diet?
If you are looking for a very detailed version of what is and is not recommended for adherence to the Nordic diet, there are books available, such as 2017’s “The Nordic Way.” This book, specifically, also incorporates carb-to-protein ratios based on a combination of low-glycemic index and moderately high-protein foods.
If your curiosities about this diet are more general, the Nordic diet is based around the following principles: stay away from refined sugar, processed foods, and food additives; eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains every single day; eat more foods from the water and less meat from the land; eat seasonally, locally, and forage wild landscapes when possible; choose organic options when possible; cook at home; produce less waste .
What makes the Nordic diet “healthy”?
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If you have read our “Top 5 Nutrients for Brain Health” piece this month, you know that omega-3 fatty acids are just about the best nutrient you can eat for your brain. The specific omega-3s that are plentiful in cold-water fish, DHA and EPA, are needed to support the integrity and function of synaptic membranes in the brain . Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) in canola oil (also heavily used in the Nordic diet) can be transformed by the body into DHA and EPA, but the conversion is rather inefficient. Getting those omega-3s from fish oil is really the best source, and typically, adults in the US don’t eat nearly enough . If you prefer not to eat fish, or are opposed to eating two or more servings a week, a fish oil supplement, such as Metabolic Maintenance’s Mega Omega can provide similar benefits.
Like the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet leaves room to enjoy a moderate amount of wine with meals. Light-to-moderate wine consumption has been associated with better performance on cognitive tests after a seven-year follow-up period in healthy, older Norwegian adults . No positive effect was observed in subjects who typically drank beer or spirits, and women who abstained from alcohol completely typically saw a drop in cognitive test scores . Taken together, these results show that it is not likely the alcohol in the wine, but wine’s other unique components that benefit cognition. Resveratrol, a potent antioxidant found in grapes has been shown in other studies to enhance both cerebrovascular function and cognition in post-menopausal women . Clinical trials suggest that resveratrol is able to improve cerebral blood flow, responsiveness to carbon dioxide overload, some cognitive tests, and the amount of cerebrospinal fluid level in all humans (not just women) .
Of course, wine is not for everyone. If for whatever reason, you are not a wine drinker, resveratrol can also be taken as a supplement in a potentially more impactful dose.
Other health benefits associated with the Nordic diet (aside from cognition) have been improvements to blood pressure and weight loss for individuals with obesity . It has also been proposed as a potential preventative measure against heart attacks and strokes [8,9]. Eating lots of berries is a unique aspect of the Nordic diet that may account for some of these health benefits. Harvard scientists have linked eating generous amounts of berries (such as blueberries and strawberries) to less weight gain and a lower risk of having a heart attack in later years . Berries are an excellent source of plant chemicals known as anthocyanins, which have been linked to healthier blood pressure and blood vessel flexibility .
The Nordic diet also emphasizes high-quality carbohydrates: cereals, crackers, and breads made with whole-grain barley, oats, and rye. You may have tried the popular Swedish Wasa crispbreads that are distributed in the US, most of which are made with whole grains. In Denmark, a dense, dark sourdough bread called RugbrØd is popular. In Scandinavia, typically more than half the grains people consume are whole grains . In the US, only about 10% of the grains we eat are whole grains . Whole grains provide a wealth of heart-protecting nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The refining process (resulting in white rice or flour) leaves the same grains with very little nutritional value, and can cause dysregulated blood sugar issues.
Speaking of sugar issues… what’s not included the diet is as important as what is included. When we regularly consume toxins and preservatives, we significantly increase the workload of our natural detoxification systems. When we stop ingesting toxic stuff, the antioxidants in our cells can focus more energy towards repairing the cellular damage that comes along with age and everyday metabolism.
Sugar, and specifically refined sugar, is problematic for a long list of reasons. Your body gets all the glucose it needs from vegetables and grains. You don’t need sweet treats, no matter what your sugar-addicted brain tells you. The Nordic diet suggests having one serving of fruit or fruit-sweetened food every day, but otherwise staying away from the sweet stuff.
- Shakersain, Behnaz, et al. “The Nordic prudent diet reduces risk of cognitive decline in the Swedish older adults: a population-based cohort study.” Nutrients 10.2 (2018): 229.
- Horrocks, Lloyd A., and Young K. Yeo. “Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).” Pharmacological research 40.3 (1999): 211-225.
- Papanikolaou, Yanni, et al. “US adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003–2008.” Nutrition journal 13.1 (2014): 1-6.
- Arntzen, K. A., et al. “Moderate wine consumption is associated with better cognitive test results: a 7 year follow up of 5033 subjects in the Tromsø Study.” Acta Neurologica Scandinavica 122 (2010): 23-29.
- Evans, Hamish M., Peter RC Howe, and Rachel HX Wong. “Effects of resveratrol on cognitive performance, mood and cerebrovascular function in post-menopausal women; a 14-week randomised placebo-controlled intervention trial.” Nutrients 9.1 (2017): 27.
- Cicero, Arrigo FG, Massimiliano Ruscica, and Maciej Banach. “Resveratrol and cognitive decline: a clinician perspective.” Archives of medical science: AMS 15.4 (2019): 936.
- Poulsen, Sanne K., et al. “Health effect of the New Nordic Diet in adults with increased waist circumference: a 6-mo randomized controlled trial.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 99.1 (2014): 35-45.
- Hansen, Camilla Plambeck, et al. “Adherence to a healthy Nordic diet and risk of stroke: a Danish cohort study.” Stroke 48.2 (2017): 259-264.
- Gunge, V. B., et al. “Adherence to a healthy Nordic food index and risk of myocardial infarction in middle-aged Danes: the diet, cancer and health cohort study.” European journal of clinical nutrition 71.5 (2017): 652-658.
- Cassidy, Aedín, et al. “Habitual intake of anthocyanins and flavanones and risk of cardiovascular disease in men.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 104.3 (2016): 587-594.
- Harvard Health Publishing “The Nordic diet: A northern twist to the Mediterranean diet.” Harvard Health Letter. December 2015. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/the-nordic-diet-a-northern-twist-to-the-mediterranean-diet