Try the Nordic Diet for Health and Longevity

You don’t have to be a Viking to enjoy the benefits of this simple and nutritious eating plan.

a young black woman holds a handful of freshly harvest root vegetables, including carrots and radishes, staples of the healthy Nordic diet

Updated on April 19, 2023.

The Mediterranean diet has long been a go-to for people trying to eat more healthfully. But the Mediterranean (an area that includes southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East) isn’t the only region with good-for-you foods. Food cultures that prioritize fresh produce, lean proteins, and healthy fats can be found around the world. Research has shown that eating in the style of Nordic countries may also help you live longer, with fewer chronic diseases as you age.

Food from the North

Nordic refers to the countries of northern Europe, and particularly Scandinavia. The region includes Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands.

When you think of food from these chilly climates, healthy may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Like many Western diets, northern European fare can contain foods high in sugar as well as red meat and high-fat dairy, both high in saturated fat. But there are a lot of nutritious foods native to the region, as well.

Developing a modern take on a traditional diet

In 2004, unhappy with the Westernization of food in the Nordic region, a group of chefs were believed to be the first to develop and promote a healthy “New Nordic” diet, filled with local, unprocessed foods. This way of eating was adopted by the Nordic Council of Ministers, who released recommendations for a healthy Nordic eating plan in 2012. (The Nordic Council is a little bit like a northern European equivalent to MyPlate, the healthy eating guideline created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

In a nutshell, the Nordic diet focuses on increasing the use of healthy, local foods, and reducing processed foods. The diet recommends eating little to none of the following:

  • Sugar-sweetened food and drinks
  • Refined grains
  • Red meat
  • Alcohol
  • Salt
  • Butter
  • High-fat diary

Instead, the diet advocates loading up on a variety of healthful foods local to Scandinavia. Though the cool region may not have the same crop diversity as the warm Mediterranean climate, it boasts a variety of nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and berries. Go-to foods in the Nordic diet include:

  • Berries (particularly lingonberries, which are relatives of blueberries and cranberries)
  • Root vegetables (like carrots)
  • Cabbage
  • Whole grains (including rye and oats)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Pulses (beans, lentils, and chickpeas)
  • Fish and seafood (particularly fatty ones like herring and salmon)
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Fruit (such as apples and pears)

Healthy heart, healthy life

Although there’s been only a small amount of research done on the Nordic diet, there is some consensus around its benefits, particularly for heart health.

A 2011 study looked at people with high cholesterol who ate either a traditional Western diet or a healthy Nordic diet for six weeks. Researchers found that those on the Nordic plan lowered their levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) by 21 percent. Even though the participants weren’t cutting calories, the people in the Nordic group also lost 4 percent more body weight than those in the control group.     

The Nordic diet has also been associated with a lower risk of stroke. In a 2017 study published in the journal Stroke, researchers found a 14 percent decreased likelihood of stroke for people who ate a healthy Nordic diet than those who didn’t.

Living healthier and longer

Another 2011 study assigned 57,053 Danish people scores from zero to six, based on how closely they adhered to a healthy Nordic eating style (with six being the most compliant). After a 12-year follow up, researchers found that men with the most points had a 36 percent lower risk of death, while top-scoring women lowered their mortality by 25 percent. For every point earned, mortality dropped by 4 percent among women and 6 percent for men.

Other research has found that the Nordic diet may help you stay healthy as you age. A 2019 article in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association found that people who ate a healthy Nordic diet were less likely to have mobility issues and disabilities as they aged than those who didn’t.

Eating in the Nordic style may also help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. A 2015 study found the Nordic diet helped lower the odds of developing type 2 diabetes by 25 percent in women and 38 percent in men. Another study, published in 2021 in the European Journal of Nutrition, tracked 2,332 middle-aged and older men from Finland over the course of 19 years. Compared to those who most closely adhered to a healthy Nordic diet, the participants who followed the diet least closely had a 35 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and higher blood glucose and insulin levels.

The Nordic diet may also have benefits that span generations. In a study of 83,800 mother-child pairs in Norway, following a healthy Nordic diet during pregnancy—with children continuing to eat that way during their early years—was found to be beneficial for cognitive development up until age 5. The study was published in 2022 in Nutrition Journal.

Bring the North to you

Trying to adopt diets from other regions of the world—be it Mediterranean or Scandinavian—may seem daunting. But the core of these eating plans is simple: Reduce processed foods and unhealthy fats and increase plant-based foods and seafood.

For instance, rye bread and oats are the most important Nordic whole grains and are easy to include in most eating plans. You may also have access to fatty fish like mackerel and sardines without realizing it; canned varieties can be found in many supermarkets and are typically as healthy as fresh versions. Salmon—another fish loaded with healthy fats—is readily available in most grocery stores, often in the freezer section.

Lingonberries—a staple of Scandinavian cuisine—typically only grow in colder climates, like the northern United States, but blueberries and raspberries are packed with antioxidants and make great replacements. Apples, pears, cabbage, and carrots are abundant in the U.S. and are simple to prepare.

If you’re interested in exploring a new cuisine with big potential health benefits, give the Nordic diet a try. Its basic formula—increasing local, whole, fresh foods while reducing processed, refined, and sugary ones—applies practically wherever you are.

Article sources open article sources

Olsen A, Egeberg R, Halkjær J, Christensen J, Overvad K, Tjønneland A. Healthy Aspects of the Nordic Diet Are Related to Lower Total Mortality. The Journal of Nutrition. 2011;141(4):639–644.
Hansen C, Overvad K, Kyrø C, Olsen A, Tjønneland A, Johnsen S, Jakobsen M, Dahm C. Adherence to a Healthy Nordic Diet and Risk of Stroke: A Danish Cohort Study. Stroke. 2017;48(2):259–264.
Lacoppidan S, Kyrø C, Loft S, Helnæs A, Christensen J, Hansen C, Dahm C, Overvad K, Tjønneland A, Olsen A. Adherence to a Healthy Nordic Food Index Is Associated with a Lower Risk of Type-2 Diabetes--The Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Cohort Study. Nutrients. 2016;7(10): 8633–8644.
Krznarić Ž, Karas I, Ljubas Kelecic D, Vranešić Bender D. The Mediterranean and Nordic Diet: A Review of Differences and Similarities of Two Sustainable, Health-Promoting Dietary Patterns. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2021;8.   
Adamsson V, Reumark A, Fredriksson I, Hammarström E, Vessby B, Johansson G, Risérus U. Effects of a healthy Nordic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in hypercholesterolaemic subjects: a randomized controlled trial (NORDIET). Journal of Internal Medicine. 2011;269(2):150–159.
Perälä M, von Bonsdorff M, Männistö S, Salonen M, Simonen M, Pohjolainen P, Kajantie E, Rantanen T, Eriksson J. The Healthy Nordic Diet and Mediterranean Diet and Incidence of Disability 10 Years Later in Home-Dwelling Old Adults. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. 2019;20(5): 511–516.e1.
Vejrup, K., Agnihotri, N., Bere, E. et al. Adherence to a healthy and potentially sustainable Nordic diet is associated with child development in The Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa). Nutr J 21, 46 (2022).
Tertsunen, HM., Hantunen, S., Tuomainen, TP. et al. Adherence to a healthy Nordic diet and risk of type 2 diabetes among men: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Eur J Nutr 60, 3927–3934 (2021).

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