The Health Benefits of the Nordic Diet

What is the Nordic diet, and how can it promote optimal health? Learn more about the health benefits of the traditional Nordic diet pattern in this guide written by Nordic diet expert Sharon Palmer.

On a farm in Iceland.

Scandinavia is a land blessed with natural beauty—rugged fjords, thousands of lakes dotting the landscape, deep blue ocean vistas, and verdant pine forests carpeted in wild flowers in the summer—as well as rich culture and treasured food traditions. Given that my husband’s family is Swedish, I have had the amazing opportunity to spend time all over Scandinavia learning about the food culture over the past 25 years. I’ve had simple outdoor picnics featuring local foods like potato salad, strawberry cakes, and almond cookies. I’ve picked mushrooms and berries in the forest. I’ve enjoyed holiday tables at Christmas and Midsummer, with classic potato, beet, and cabbage dishes. Over time, I’ve seen the food culture evolve. My first visits to supermarkets all of those years ago revealed nothing but shelves stocked with simple supplies of whole foods, while today’s grocery stores look remarkably similar to American markets, filled with processed and convenience foods. And Western-style fast food restaurants abound. The Nordic countries are working hard to preserve the traditional diet pattern for multiple reasons, including health and sustainability. Indeed, more research and recognition has credited the traditional Nordic diet—the simple wholesome eating style based primarily on whole grains, seasonal produce, and seafood—with health benefits. You can learn more about the Nordic diet in my Today’s Dietitian Webinar on this topic.

Reykjavik, Iceland

What is the Nordic Diet?

Dark, hearty rye breads, preserved seafoods, summer berries, and root vegetables. These are some of the key foods of the traditional Nordic Diet, which is a term used to describe the similar yet unique foodways followed by Nordic countries. These countries include Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Greenland. Nordic countries are united across borders by similar food traditions, geography, climate, and a shared emphasis on local and seasonal foods. For example, many dishes, such as dried fish and rye crispbread, can have common histories across Scandinavia, but each country, and even regions within that country, can have a different name and recipe associated with their specific take on that recipe.

Dried fish in Iceland

The History of Nordic Food Culture

Nordic food culture was birthed from a need for survival. The long, dark, frozen winters meant that it was difficult to ensure securing enough food to meet the people’s nutritional needs. Thus, the foundation of the Nordic Diet is based on three factors: climate, lifestyle, and isolation. The climate, with those endless icy winters, yet bursts of sunshine in the long warm days of summer, meant that food had to be secured during the warmer months that could last over the winter. In addition, crops had to be cultivated which suited these weather patterns, such as oats, rye, beets, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes, becoming important aspects of the diet. Foods, such as herbs, berries and mushrooms were foraged during the warmers months, as well. Lifestyle also factored into food traditions, including a deep-held communion with nature and the gifts from the forest, as well as a large number of small farms dotting the landscape. Thanks to those long, dark days (in some parts of Scandinavia the sun never rises during parts of the winter), families became very isolated, having to ensure survival through their rugged tenacity. Over time, these three factors evolved into a cultural diet pattern that has been passed down through generations. Just look at these food traditions that have long been celebrated in Nordic countries: pickled herring is consumed at many holidays, crayfish parties pop up in the summertime when this shellfish is widely available in waterways, and legend has it that you should leave out a bowl of porridge at Christmas for the barn elves so that they behave themselves over the winter.

November farmers market with seasonal produce in Norway

Food preservation is a great example of one of the ways climate and survival influenced the early Nordic Diet. In the mountains, milk is preserved as cheese and butter for the winter. Other examples of food preservation include fish traditions, such as dried cod, pickled herring, Norwegian lutefisk, and Icelandic fermented shark. Vegetables, such as cabbage and beets, were pickled. Berries were cooked down into concentrates to rehydrate with water later on. Breads were baked into long-lasting crispbreads, made from freshly harvested grains. Root cellars helped keep vegetables, like cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and rutabagas, edible for months. Pulses, like beans and peas, could be dried and consumed during the year in dishes, such as the weekly Pea Soup that is a classic custom in Sweden. The end result was a diet pattern rich in foraged, seasonal, local foods, such as seafood, whole grains, pulses, root and cruciferous vegetables, and fruits like apples, pears and berries.

Local produce on display in Stockholm, Sweden

The Concept of a Healthy Nordic Diet

What fed into the concept of the health benefits of the diet patterns in Scandinavia? You can trace this knowledge back to the growing recognition of the Mediterranean diet, as this diet pattern highlighted the health benefits of specific traditional diet patterns. In the 1950s the Seven Countries Study, performed by Ancel Keys, found that Greece had the lowest saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease risk, while the Nordic country of Finland had the highest saturated fat intake of all the European countries studied, as well as the highest risk of coronary heart disease. In 1972, in response to the Seven Countries Diet, the North Karelia Intervention project instructed the people of Finland to reduce saturated fat in their diet by encouraging low-fat dairy and the consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, while reducing the consumption of butter, animal fat, meats, and egg yolks. These interventions reduced CHD incidents by 82% in men and 84% in women. Remarkable indeed!

Local produce in Copenhagen, Denmark

It was during this time that scientists started noticing that many components of the traditional Nordic diet were similar to the applauded Mediterranean diet, such as whole grains, seafoods, and seasonal fruits and vegetables. And there were opportunities to honor a more healthful Nordic diet pattern steeped in a sustainable, more traditional way of eating (now referred to as the New Nordic Diet or the Healthy Nordic Diet). Instead of encouraging Scandinavians to consume the Mediterranean diet, which is based on food not available locally, why not revitalize the healthiest parts of the Nordic traditional diet?

Whole grain crispbread is part of the healthy, traditional Nordic diet

A Closer Look at the Traditional Nordic Diet

The following foods are part of the traditional Nordic diet pattern, with an emphasis on locally produced, seasonal foods.

  • Fruits and Berries: Rose hip, blueberries, lingonberries, apples, pears, and prunes
  • Vegetables: Cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, fennel, spinach, sugar peas, kale, mushrooms
  • Root Vegetables: Onion, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips, beetroot, and viper’s grass
  • Nuts: Almonds
  • Legumes: Brown beans, yellow peas, and green peas
  • Meat: Pasture-raised beef, lamb, and reindeer
  • Poultry: Chicken and turkey
  • Dairy Products: Low-fat or fermented milk and cheese
  • Fish: Herring, mackerel, and salmon
  • Grains/Cereals: Whole grain rye, whole grain wheat, oat bran, barley flakes, muesli, and pearled barley
  • Seeds: Linseed, psyllium, and sunflower seeds
  • Fats and Oils: Vegetable fat spreads, vegetable liquid margarine, sunflower oil, linseed (flaxseed) oil, and rapeseed (canola) oil
  • Sweets: Jam and baked goods
Swedish pears at the market

Comparing the Mediterranean Diet to the Nordic Diet

As I mentioned, the healthy, traditional Nordic diet pattern has commonalities with the Mediterranean diet, yet it is culturally and geographically better suited to the Nordic countries.

Key Foods Mediterranean Diet Nordic Diet
Oils Olive Rapeseed
Vegetables Legumes Local vegetables (roots, cabbage, legumes)
Fruits Bananas, apples, and oranges Wild berries and local fruits (apples, pears, etc.)
Grains Whole grain wheat Whole grain rye, oats, and barley
Nuts Found in both diets  
Fish Salmon, tuna, and halibut Sea and lake fish
Meat Poultry in moderation Game, low fat meat, and poultry in moderation
Alcohol Wine in moderation No recommendation, can be consumed in moderation
Dairy products Cheese Low-fat milk products and cheese
Farm in Iceland

Evaluating the Healthy Nordic Diet

So, just how healthy is the Nordic diet? In 2011, the Healthy Nordic Food Index (HNFI) was published by Olsen, et al. The HNFI was created to evaluate the effect that Nordic food groups have on health and mortality. This research showed that the healthy Nordic Diet pattern, described above, varies from the average diet in these countries, because it meets the requirement for micronutrients and is higher in plant foods, fish, eggs, vegetable fats, and fiber, and lower in meat, dairy, sweets, sodium, and alcohol, compared to the average diet. This highlights that many people in the Nordic countries have strayed away from the healthful Nordic diet pattern towards a more Western style of eating, which is high in red meats, processed foods, refined grains, and sugar, and low in whole grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, and fish. It also exposed how powerful a return to healthful traditions could be.

Science-based benefits from the healthy Nordic diet pattern include lower risk for colorectal cancer, which is primarily associated with a higher intake of fruit and grains, moderate alcohol consumption, and a lower intake of processed meat. However, additional research is needed to establish more conclusive results as benefits were not consistent for all study participants. 

Clasic Swedish Pea Soup

Proteins in the Healthy Nordic Diet

One of the main differences in the healthy Nordic diet pattern pertains to protein choices. Here are the primary protein choices in this diet pattern.

  • Legumes (brown beans, yellow and green peas)
  • Fish, shellfish (herring, mackerel, salmon, white fish)
  • Free-range livestock (beef, pork, lamb)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Game (reindeer, deer)
  • Dairy Products (Low-fat milk, fermented milk, cheese)
  • Eggs (used in cooking)
  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts)
Seasonal produce for sale in Helsinki, Finland

Fruits and Vegetables in the Healthy Nordic Diet

Another key feature is that this healthful diet pattern is richer in produce, such as the following:

  • Herbs (parsley, dill, mustard, horseradish, chive)
  • Potatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Seaweed
  • Fruits (rose hip, apple, pear, prune)
  • Berries (blueberry, lingonberry, strawberries)
  • Vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, peas, viper’s grass, kale)
  • Root Vegetables (fennel, kohlrabi, onion, leek, turnip, carrot, parsnip, rutabaga, beetroot)
Whole grain rye bread from Sweden

Whole Grains in the Healthy Nordic Diet

Whole grains are also more prevalent in the more healthful diet pattern, such as the following:

  • Oats (cereals, muesli, porridge)
  • Bread (whole grain rye and wheat)
  • Pearled Barley
  • Whole grain pasta
Coastline of Iceland

Environmental Benefits of the Nordic Diet

Our food choices and sources also greatly impact the environment. The New Nordic Diet (or the healthy Nordic diet pattern) has beneficial effects on soil structure, carbon storage, eutrophication, biodiversity, ecosystems, and humans, according to research.

The three dietary aspects of environmental protection that can be observed in the healthy Nordic diet pattern include:

  • Diet composition: Reduction of meat, fish, and dairy consumption compared to the average diet.
  • Local: Eating local vs. imported commodities in the Nordic countries has greater benefits.
  • Organic vs. conventional produce: Organic agriculture has environmental benefits, but it can be inhibited by socio-economic factors.

Lessons from the Nordic Diet for Other Regions

So, you may wonder if the Nordic diet has benefits for you in your own community? Just like the Mediterranean diet, you can apply a few key lessons from the healthy Nordic diet that may suit your own food traditions, culture, and growing climate and region.

  • Include more seasonal, local, foraged, home-grown, organic vegetables, including root and cruciferous vegetables.
  • Add more fruits, including berries (peaches, pears, apples, prunes).
  • Include moderate amount of low-fat, fermented dairy foods (if you eat dairy; oat milk is locally produced in Scandinavia if you avoid dairy products).
  • Avoid processed meats and reduce red meat intake; if you eat meat, prioritize grass-fed, wild meat.
  • Include unsaturated fats from nuts and vegetable oils.
  • Focus on whole grains, including different varieties (such as oats, rye, barley).
  • Exercise daily.
  • Enjoy meals with friends and family.
Vegan Jansson’s Temptation (Swedish Potato Casserole)

My Tips on How to Apply Nordic Food Traditions at Home
Here are a few cooking tips on how to apply healthy Nordic traditions in your own kitchen.

  1. Incorporate whole grains into fruit-based desserts.
  2. Use root vegetables in salads.
  3. Use more beets, apples, and berries.
  4. Top crisp breads with dips and vegetables.
  5. Use barley in soups.

Try some of these traditional Nordic dishes at home. Here are some of my favorite plant-based Scandinavian recipes.

Image: Open Face Beet Fennel Sandwich, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

Learn more about my take on the health Nordic diet in this Today’s Dietitian Webinar and Podcast with Vitalita Health

Written by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN with Cara Joseph, Dietetic Intern

Photographs by Sharon Palmer

References:

  1. Amilien, V. Nordic Food Culture-A Historical Perspective. Open Edition Journals. 2012. https://journals.openedition.org/aof/7014
  2. Kolehmainen, M. The Nordic Diet. Ernaehrungs Umschau International. 2013. https://www.ernaehrungs-umschau.de/fileadmin/Ernaehrungs-Umschau/pdfs/pdf_2017/01_17/EU01_2017_englisch_Nordic_Diet.pdf
  3. Adamsson, V. What is a Healthy Nordic Diet? Food and Nutrients in the NORDIET Study. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3386552/
  4. Anja Olsen, Rikke Egeberg, Jytte Halkjær, Jane Christensen, Kim Overvad, Anne Tjønneland, Healthy Aspects of the Nordic Diet Are Related to Lower Total Mortality, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 141, Issue 4, April 2011, Pages 639–644, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.110.131375
  5. Jense, J. & Poulsen, S. The New Nordic Diet-Consumer Expenditures and Economic Incentives Estimated from a Controlled Intervention. U.S. National Library of Medicine. 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3866464/
  6. Saxe, H. The New Nordic Diet is an Effective Tool in Environmental Protection: It Reduces the Associated Socioeconomic Cost of Diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/99/5/1117/4577427