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food for thought

Roasted fruits and vegetables on a wooden table.Magone/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Should you eat like a Viking or a gladiator? Perhaps both.

You’re probably familiar with the Mediterranean diet, a collection of foods traditionally consumed by people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It’s been linked to a wide range of health benefits including a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

You may not have heard of the Nordic diet, though. It’s another traditional way of eating that’s gaining popularity for its similar health advantages and culinary appeal.

The Nordic diet, with roots dating back to the Viking age, was revitalized in 2004 by a group of researchers, dietitians and chefs in an effort to promote nutritious seasonal Nordic foods to people living in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

What’s in the Nordic diet?

Like the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet is predominately plant-based with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and pulses, moderate amounts of fish, poultry and eggs, small amounts of dairy and limited red meat.

It emphasizes whole and minimally processed foods that are sourced locally, which reduces energy consumption and minimizes food waste. (The longer foods spend in storage and transit, the greater the chance of spoilage.)

Where the Nordic diet differs, though, is in its ingredients. The foods included are ones that are optimally grown or raised in the Nordic climate, soil and waters.

Vegetables include root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips), cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage) and green peas. Berries (lingonberries), apples, pears and plums are the predominant fruits.

Nordic menus feature steel-cut oats, whole grain barley, and breads and crackers made with whole grain rye. Herring, mackerel, sardines and salmon, rich in omega-3 fats, as well as leaner white fish, are regularly eaten.

Lean game meats such as elk, bison, deer, venison and caribou are enjoyed occasionally. Skyr, an Icelandic-made yogurt that’s high in protein (25 grams per cup) and low in fat, is also eaten.

The diet also includes fermented fish, vegetables and dairy (kefir), foods that offer gut-friendly probiotic bacteria. Dill, parsley and fennel add flavour and protective antioxidants to meals.

A notable difference between the Nordic and Mediterranean diets is the type of cooking oil used. In southern Europe, extra virgin olive oil is the principal fat; the Nordic diet emphasizes rapeseed oil (a.k.a. canola oil).

Both oils are excellent sources of heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Canola oil contains alpha linolenic acid, an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid, while extra virgin olive oil provides other beneficial phytochemicals.

Health benefits of Nordic eating

The Nordic diet is newer than the Mediterranean diet, so fewer studies have been conducted to explore its health benefits. Still, the evidence to date is promising.

Last year, a review of research conducted by the World Health Organization concluded that both the Mediterranean and Nordic diets protect against Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Adhering to a Nordic diet has also been shown to lower elevated blood pressure and blood cholesterol, reduce inflammation in the body and promote weight loss.

Four Nordic staples to add to your diet

You don’t have to live in Northern Europe to embrace a Nordic-style diet. Include the following foods in your regular diet; when possible, choose local foods.

Whole grain rye bread. Dense rye bread made with rye meal, rye kernels and/or whole grain rye flour is a good source of fibre and lignans, phytochemicals with anti-cancer properties. Traditional pumpernickel and rye breads are also made with a sourdough starter, which gives them a low glycemic index. Also eat: whole grain rye crackers, steel-cut oats, whole grain spelt, and hulled barley.

Cabbage. This cruciferous vegetable is an excellent source of vitamin C as well as fibre, calcium, potassium, bone-building vitamin K and anti-cancer compounds called glucosinolates. Also eat: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower.

Potatoes. This root vegetable serves up vitamin C, plenty of vitamin B6, folate and magnesium, and a lot more potassium than a banana (926 mg for a medium baked potato). Also eat: turnip, rutabaga, carrots, radishes, onions.

Sardines. This fatty fish delivers plenty of protein, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, calcium and selenium, an antioxidant mineral. Also eat: herring, mackerel and salmon.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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