Mediterranean vs. Nordic diet: which is best?
Searching for a diet that provides not only spectacular health benefits but also delicious food? Look no further than the Mediterranean diet. But there’s a “new” diet in town that boasts even bigger benefits – is it the “real deal”? Let’s find out.
The Mediterranean diet isn’t really a “diet.” It’s the way Europeans have been eating for centuries. Their diets are naturally rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, grains, fish, and healthy fats like avocados and olive oil. Refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugary foods are eaten minimally or avoided altogether.
As a result, those who follow the Mediterranean diet tend to be healthier and less prone to obesity and chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. One study revealed, “adherence to the Mediterranean diet seems to be a factor importantly associated with a better health-related quality of life.” Research has also shown some degree of protection against cognitive decline and dementia.
The key components of the Mediterranean include:
- Fresh, high-quality (preferably organic) vegetables and fruit
- Wild-caught fish (salmon particularly)
- Whole, unrefined grains (typically wheat and farro)
- Olive oil
- Nuts, beans, and legumes
- Fermented dairy products like Greek yogurt and kefir, and cheese in moderation
Red meat can be part of the Mediterranean diet, but typically only a few times a month. Eggs and poultry are also fine, about once a week.
When it comes to flexibility, this diet is hard to beat.
Getting started isn’t difficult either. The easiest way to dive right in is to switch out vegetable and canola oils for healthier options like olive and avocado oils. Also replace one or two red meat-based dinners per week for cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, halibut, or trout. And if you want to indulge in a glass or two of alcohol (which is perfectly acceptable with this diet!), choose heart-healthy red wine over beer or hard liquor.
Best of all, you don’t even have to give up sweets, as long as you limit them to once per week (or less frequently, if you’re able).
The popularity of the Mediterranean diet has spawned some “copycat” diets—some good, some not worth trying. There is one, though, that deserves a second look.
The Mediterranean’s Diet’s “Cold-Climate Cousin”
Often described as the cold-climate version of the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet has gained traction over the past several years. It definitely has a lot of pros—and one notable con.
The Nordic diet was developed about 15 years ago by various medical professionals in Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, etc.), to encourage people to abandon Western eating habits and instead consume more seasonal, fresh, locally grown foods. It shares a lot of similarities to the Mediterranean diet, but with more of a focus on regional cuisine. And when it comes to health benefits, the Nordic diet, like its southern counterpart, has been shown to reduce risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and fight obesity.
Nutritionally speaking, the Nordic diet’s main focus is plant-based foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. But instead of warm-weather produce like tomatoes and eggplants, the Nordic diet serves up fruits and veggies that grow and thrive in chillier climates, like root vegetables (turnips, beets, carrots, etc.), apples, and pears.
As with the Mediterranean diet, protein-rich fish is a Nordic staple. Salmon, mackerel, and herring are abundant in the cold, clean waters that surround these countries, making them easily accessible and low in pollutants and toxins.
Grains included in the Nordic diet include barley, rye, and oats. And while dairy like Greek yogurt is encouraged in the Mediterranean diet, those on the Nordic diet enjoy skyr, which is cultured and produced differently than Greek (and other) yogurts and has a thicker consistency.
The Nordic diet also limits processed foods, sweets, and red meat—all boons for your health.
For all these benefits, there is one major drawback to the Nordic diet.
While the Mediterranean diet is rich in olives and olive oil as a source of heart-healthy fats, the Nordic diet uses canola oil because the rapeseed plant (from which canola oil is made) is an abundant crop in that region.
By now, it’s pretty well known that canola oil isn’t the healthiest oil you can choose. It is high in omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6s are important in moderation, most Americans consume them in excess. This is problematic because omega-6s are inflammatory in nature, and too much in the system can lead to chronic inflammation and, eventually, inflammatory conditions (i.e. diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, etc.). This is why sticking to olive oil—high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids—is a much healthier way to go.
Which Diet Is Right for You?
Here’s the great news—overall, the Mediterranean and the Nordic diets are both excellent, sustainable choices. You can adapt both by focusing on eating locally-grown, seasonal foods and changing things up with each new season. Your diet may end up being more “Nordic” in the autumn and winter and more “Mediterranean” in the spring and summer (or the other way around, depending on where you live). Either way, you’re still following an eating plan that benefits your health in multiple ways.
The only caveat: Forgo the canola oil and choose olive or avocado oils for your cooking, baking, and marinating.
- Sanchez P et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and quality of life in the SUN project. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012;66, 360–68.