Your brain is not separate from your body, and we are quite literally 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. The benefits of the Nordic diet revolve around these concepts.
The neuroprotective intentions of the MIND Diet are live on this blog if you have an interest in exploring it. Even more recent, and possibly more significant, are the data on cognitive decline after following the prudent Nordic diet. We thought our customers might have an interest 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 notes that while the Mediterranean diet has links to 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 proposes that eating locally sourced foods has 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 consists of foods available locally and seasonally in this relatively cold region of the world. While it does include some traditional fare, the priority is health benefits. The diet would discourage or suggest minimizing some traditional foods (think IKEA’s swedish meatballs). 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 . The diet is based around locally available foods. So, 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, the diet recommends that you adapt 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 detailed explanation of adherence to the Nordic diet, there are books available. One of which is 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 . The body can convert alpha linoleic acid (ALA) from canola oil into DHA and EPA. However, 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 this much fish, 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 . These results show that it is not 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. Whether or not you are a wine drinker, resveratrol can be taken as a supplement in a 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 boosting cardiovascular health [8,9]. 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 better cardiovascular health later in life . 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. The popular Swedish Wasa crispbreads available in the US they make mostly with whole grains. Denmark has popularized a dense, dark sourdough bread called RugbrØd. In Scandinavia, typically more than half the grains people consume are whole grains . Comparatively, 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. Refined grains can cause dysregulated blood sugar issues.
Speaking of sugar issues… what’s not included the diet is as important as what you can’t eat. 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.