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Eat like a Viking?
The Nordic craze seems to be upon us - we have had Scandinavian furniture design, Scandinavian crime drama and a Nordic restaurant has been voted the world’s best. And now there are rumours on our shores that the Nordic diet will replace the Mediterranean diet as the dietary pattern for health.
So what is the Nordic diet and is there any evidence that it may be associated with health benefit?
We may think of Nordic food simply in terms of Swedish meatballs, reindeer and smoked fish. In fact the Nordic diet is typified by a diet rich in oily fish, rich in plant foods such as root vegetables, cabbages, berries, wholegrains such as rye and oats and unsaturated fats, particularly rapeseed oil. It also includes some more unfamiliar items such as some wild lean game and specialised foraged plant foods.
Many of these foods have nutritional benefits
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring are a source of long chain omega 3 fatty acids which are associated with heart health. There is some nutritional variability, both in wild fish owing to seasonal factors, and in farmed fish depending on the feed used, but both are good sources. Rapeseed (Canola) oil though is readily available in the UK - unlike olives, rapeseed thrives in cooler climates, and has low saturated fat content. Berries (like cloudberries or loganberries) are often added to dishes in Scandinavian cookery, and are typically high in antioxidants. But some berries are also available seasonally in UK and frozen is good too. Scandinavians also typically consume rye and other wholegrain breads, which are a good source of fibre, whereas the UK population on average prefers white bread.
Several studies have found that the Nordic diet improves blood cholesterol levels in people with cardiovascular risk factors, compared to a more typical Western diet. Some, but not all, have also found this type of diet to be associated with weight reduction, lower blood pressure and improved insulin sensitivity (linked to risk of type 2 diabetes). The latest research published this month from a small randomised controlled study found that people following a Nordic diet, compared to a control group, developed reduced activity of a number of genes associated with inflammation of their abdominal fat. However, there were no changes in blood pressure or cholesterol, and the clinical relevance of these findings are unclear.
Nordic vs Mediterranean diet
Currently there are no studies that compare the Nordic diet with the Mediterranean diet, which has been more widely studied, but both contain healthful components that reflect current healthy eating guidelines in the UK. In essence the Nordic diet is a regional interpretation of the tenets of healthy eating. Unless we become foragers or visit specialised suppliers it may be hard to truly adopt a Nordic diet, but we can incorporate the diet’s basic components and follow some of its general philosophy.
We do not have sufficient evidence that eating a Nordic diet prevents chronic diseases but let’s be a little more Viking by eating fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, oily fish and replacing saturated fat with unsaturated plant oils.