What to eat now – a Mediterranean or Nordic style diet?

by sophie on March 22, 2009 · 10 comments

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Spring is in the air, which might seem an odd time to be writing about Winter, but what better time is there to reflect over what we have been eating over the last months? More and more evidence is gathering to support the Mediterranean diet for health and longevity, but there’s something in the mere mention of Mediterranean food that evokes images of sun-loving plants and al fresco eating. Is this a diet we can keep up through the Winter, or should those of us in colder parts be switching to a Nordic style diet? 
Published in the British Medical Journal last year was a high quality research paper which suggests that sticking to a Mediterranean diet is even more beneficial to health than previously thought.  The article was a systematic review and meta-analysis, a way of pooling the results of a number of studies together to give a result that is more accurate and more reliable than those from the individual studies alone.  Its findings gave some convincing evidence that closely following a Mediterranean diet can enable you to live for longer and significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. 

A Mediterranean diet as defined by this Florence University study involves building your diet around these food groups:

  • legumes (beans and peas)
  • fruit and vegetables, in all different forms
  • cereals such as bread and pasta
  • fish (including but not limited to oily fish)
  • a moderate amount of wine with meals
  • a high ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated fat

It doesn’t sound so much like health food does it, just good eating?  There are two valuable messages buried in this research paper.  Firstly, the “Mediterranean diet” [in research terms] is relatively un-prescriptive one.  You don’t have to eat tomatoes and peppers; other vegetables count, and you can substitute that olive oil for another fat with a similar nutritional profile (such as rapeseed oil).  The second point is that the results are all about adherence; the more Mediterranean your diet is, the greater the health benefits. 

Trying to muscle its way into the Med diet’s much coveted “optimum diet” slot this week has been a newcomer, the new Nordic diet.  There’s an intriguing argument emerging advocating that some areas of the world (the UK included) have a climate much more akin to that of the Nordic countries than those of the Mediterranean and that we should be a Nordic style diet, including ingredients such as barley, oats, rye, cabbage, cold pressed rape oil, sea foods and fish, berries, wild game and freerange meat products.  Newspaper headlines (“Nordic diet as healthy as Mediterranean foods”) as usual suggest that we should all be making a wholesale swap to the Nordic diet.

In reality it isn’t time to ditch the tomatoes and olive oil yet; the Nordic diet is a mere babe in arms in research terms when compared to the wealth of high quality research looking into the Mediterranean diet.  The recent Nordic diet coverage is for the most part speculative, prompted by the announcement of the £12.2 million project OPUS, to define and test a healthy, region specific diet to be known as “the new Nordic diet”. A key priority of the research is to ensure that the new Nordic diet is a tasty one.  As the OPUS project site itself admits “in the Nordic countries nutritional science and gastronomy have been on a collision course for centuries”. And let’s face it, the Nordic diet has its work cut-out if it is going to be serious competitor to the very acceptable Mediterranean style of eating.  

In the Nordic countries nutritional science and gastronomy have been on a collision course for centuries

OPUS project

New though it is the OPUS project is a very interesting one and I will be following it closely.   The project has a multi-disciplinary approach combining impressive expertise such as gastronomic entrepreneur Claus Meyer and Professor Arne Astrup, president of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. Its focus on bridging gastronomy, health and sustainability is both admirable and sensible and makes you wonder if every country ought to have its own OPUS project?

For the meantime however, there’s nothing in that Mediterranean diet list that can’t be sourced and eaten in the Winter. This makes perfect sense of course, after all what do Northern Italy and other colder parts of the Med eat in the Winter?  And those proposed Nordic diet ingredients still sound like fruit, vegetables, fish, cereals and monounsaturated fats to me.

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Elaine March 23, 2009 at 04:22

Excellent post, Sophie. Thanks for doing the research and thoughtfully evaluating the claims. Yes, the general pattern of both the Mediterranean & Nordic diets sound identical. My preference would be mostly Mediterranean with the delicious seasonal berries that grow in the Nordic countries :-).
I like your suggestion of each country doing its own OPUS project. This would be a very valuable investment of research resources.

Maija Haavisto March 23, 2009 at 07:43

The only problem with the Nordic diet is that most of the food tastes horrible (except for the berries and mushrooms). Just saying as someone who has lived here all my life (hopefully not for much longer, though).

Arwen from Hoglet K March 23, 2009 at 07:52

I like your pattern searching here. It’s nice to show that there are many possible ways to achieve a healthy diet. It’s logical that they work with the same food types though. It makes it easier to try to adjust your own diet when you’re working with food groups rather than ingredients.

Sophie March 24, 2009 at 18:38

Hi Elaine, yes, I was wondering what it would mean if people were to start advocating a more Nordic diet, but it doesn’t really sound very different at the moment. I wonder if anybody has put in a research proposal regarding doing a UK OPUS project? I guess the problem in the UK is that we just don’t have enough land given over to food production at the moment for it to be worthwhile, but then again I suspect we’ll have to start thinking along these lines.
Maija – it’s all a matter of opinion of course but I suspect many people would agree with you. The quote I included from the researchers about the friction between nutrition and gastronomy made me chuckle. They seem to realise that they’ve got their work cut out making it taste good!
Arwen – definitely – there are many, many different but good ways to put together a healthy diet. I’m very interested to see how much the Nordic style and med diets overlap once the Nordic diet is a bit more fully defined.

Steve Parker, M.D. March 30, 2009 at 16:33

I agree: it’s too soon to abandon the Mediterranean diet in favor of the Nordic diet. Maybe someday 20 years from now, when we have the scientific studies to support the Nordic diet.

joey April 8, 2009 at 10:43

Interesting post! In terms of the food they prescribe to eat, both diets sounds good to me…I actually like barley, oats, berries, and herring! :)

Melanie Thomassian April 10, 2009 at 10:11

Hi Sophie,
I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on the mantra that a diet of carbs, even if they’re wholegrain, leads to obesity and diabetes etc?
This is a quote from one of Dr Davis’ recent posts, “Plenty of “healthy whole grains” increases appetite, triggers insulin to extremes, skyrockets blood sugar, provokes inflammation (like c-reactive protein), makes you gain weight.”
Any thoughts?

Loki February 23, 2010 at 16:30

Hi Sophie,
Although the food groups are similar in both diets and many of the mediteranian foods can be grown year-round, is the Nordic diet not meant to be effective because of its use of heavier grained foods that fill you for longer?
I have started following this three-day plan,
I was wondering what you thought of it?

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AmandaonMaui June 7, 2010 at 02:30

I believe in simply eating food that is organic if possible, local if possible, and in season if possible. It’s not a matter of a Nordic diet versus a Mediterranean diet. It’s more about eating real food and staying away from the Western/American diet.

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