The Nordic diet: Healthy eating with an eco-friendly bent

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

If you’ve never heard of the Nordic diet, you might imagine a plate of those Swedish meatballs sold at Ikea. But in fact, this eating style focuses on healthier fare, including plenty of plant-based foods that nutritionists always encourage us to eat. And while the data are limited so far, several studies suggest following a Nordic eating pattern may foster weight loss and lower blood pressure.

As the name suggests, the Nordic diet features foods that are locally sourced or traditionally eaten in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Developed in collaboration with the acclaimed Copenhagen gourmet restaurant NOMA, the diet emphasizes the use of seasonal, healthy, regional foods. (It doesn’t necessarily represent how most Scandinavians eat on a daily basis, however.)

What the diet delivers

Nordic diet staples include whole-grain cereals such as rye, barley, and oats; berries and other fruits; vegetables (especially cabbage and root vegetables like potatoes and carrots); fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring; and legumes (beans and peas).

“The Nordic diet is a healthy dietary pattern that shares many elements with the Mediterranean diet,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Mediterranean diet — widely considered the best eating pattern for preventing heart disease — also emphasizes plant-based foods. Both diets include moderate amounts of fish, eggs, and small amounts of dairy, but limit processed foods, sweets, and red meat.

While the Mediterranean diet includes olive oil, the Nordic diet favors rapeseed oil (also known as canola oil). Like olive oil, canola oil is high in healthy monounsatured fat. But it also contains some alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid similar to the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Of course, fatty fish — the richest dietary source of omega-3s — play a role in both Nordic and Mediterranean diets (try for two to three servings a week).

The Nordic diet also emphasizes high-quality carbohydrates: cereals, crackers, and breads made with whole-grain barley, oats, and rye. Americans may be familiar with Swedish Wasa crispbreads, most of which are made with whole grains. In Denmark, a dense, dark sourdough bread called Rugbrød is popular. These whole-grain foods provide a wealth of heart-protecting nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Eating lots of berries is another unique aspect of the Nordic diet that may account for some of its health benefits. Research by Harvard scientists has linked eating plentiful amounts of berries (such as blueberries and strawberries) to less weight gain and a lower risk of having a heart attack. Berries are excellent sources of plant chemicals known as anthocyanins, which seem to lower blood pressure and make blood vessels more flexible.

Bonus: It’s easy on the environment, too

The Nordic diet offers an added bonus: it’s environmentally friendly. For one thing, plant-based diets use fewer natural resources (such as water and fossil fuels) and create less pollution than meat-heavy diets. In addition, eating locally-produced foods also reduces energy consumption and food waste, says Dr. Hu. And while the Nordic diet makes sense for those living in Northern Europe, people everywhere can apply those same principles to their diet no matter where they live.

While the Nordic diet isn’t proven to prevent heart disease to the same extent as the Mediterranean diet, it’s clearly a step above the average American diet, which has too much processed food and meat to be considered good for the heart. “People who really like berries, rye bread, and canola oil should go ahead and enjoy a Nordic-style diet rather than waiting 10 years to get more evidence,” says Dr. Hu.


  1. Heidi Sachet

    As my German physician brother-in-law says, with a sigh: “Every week they drive another pig through the village.”
    I have always wondered about the Mediterranean diet. Have you ever seen an Italian, or a Southern Frenchman eat whole grain pasta, or whole grain bread, or brown rice?
    And how about rye, and oats?
    And how about those healthy berries you find in the North?
    And how about cabbage?
    And sourkraut?
    And potatoes, yes, potatoes, with a lot of potassium.
    For a long time it was almonds, almonds, nothing but almonds. Now it’s walnuts. How about filberts? Or, how about the health benefits of nuts, period?
    PLEASE, just give us FACTS, not HYPE.
    Heidi Sachet