The Mediterranean diet has long been thought of as a healthy ideal that the rest of the Western world should try to live up to.
But now it appears that the traditional cornerstone of Nordic food could be just as healthy as the Mediterranean delights.
“Here in the North we’ve been told for years that our diet isn’t healthy enough,” says Anja Olsen, a researcher at the Danish Cancer Society.
Instead of focusing on the parts of the Nordic diet they knew was unhealthy, Olsen and her colleagues singled out six food groups that they assumed were healthy. And it appears that a high intake of these foods can be just as healthy as the Mediterranean diet.
The six Nordic food groups that have a positive effect on our health and our lifespan are rye bread, fish, cabbage, oatmeal, root vegetables and fruits such as apples and pears.
A high intake of these foods results in a longer life, according to the study, which followed 50,290 middle-aged Danish men and women over a twelve-year period.
Each participant was given a score of 0-6 on a so-called Nordic food index. A score of 6 means that the person eats more than average from all these six food groups, whereas a score of 0 means that the person eats less than average of all six food groups.
“Those who scored highly – 4-6 on the index – had significantly lower mortality rates,” says Olsen.
“They did, however, live healthier lives in general than those with low scores. But even when taking different lifestyles into account, we saw a clear difference.”
The study shows that men with a high Nordic food score had a 36 percent lower mortality rate on average than men with a low score of 0 or 1. The difference was less clear for the women in the study.
The researchers noticed two individual foods that stood out as especially healthy: rye bread and cabbage. And the reason is simple:
“Rye bread has a high concentration of wholemeal, which is a vital part of a healthy diet, and the rye itself may have some particularly health-promoting qualities,” says Olsen.
“Perhaps our daily slice of rye bread is actually the healthiest part of our traditional diet. In addition, cabbage and rye bread both contain lots of dietary fibres. These fill our stomachs without making us fat.”
The researchers initially only looked into the effects that a Nordic diet had on mortality rates. The next step is to study whether the healthy Nordic diet also has a positive effect in relation to cancer, particularly cancers of the colon and rectum.
“We’re also expecting to see a correlation here, since we know that whole grains have a protective effect against cancer of the rectum,” says the researcher.
She believes the good news about Nordic food show some good public health prospects:
The recipe for a long life
Minimum daily intake (men/women)
Apples and pears: 56g/71g
Root vegetables: 16g/29g
Rye bread: 63g
“There’s a very large group out there that’s hard to reach with recommendations. It’s probably easier to get the message that you should eat a slice of rye bread with herring compared to the message about eating lots of green salad,” she says.
“We merely need to eat a bit more of the foods that already play a major role in our daily diets and which is available locally. There’s no need to go out and explore new things.”
In fact, it would make more sense to focus on the traditional Nordic foods rather than plunging into the Mediterranean diet.
“It’s not the healthy, heavy elements of the Mediterranean diet that we have adopted,” says Olsen. “It’s mainly the light and delicious things like white bread and pasta that have been easy to integrate into our culture”
She sees this as another reason to increase the focus on healthy Nordic foods.
The researchers have no plans to tell the rest of the Western world to start eating Nordic food. Rather, they expect that the individual countries perhaps will start to use its own traditional foods to increase the public health.
According to Olsen and her colleagues, such a perspective would be particularly useful if, in addition to health, we were to focus on sustainable and climate-friendly food.