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Nordic diet provides health benefits beyond weight loss

The Nordic diet is based on foods that are produced locally in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland. The ingredients are easily available and sustainably produced in these countries, and include berries, fruits, veggies, fish, whole grains and rapeseed oil. Following this diet has proven successful for people who are trying to lose weight. And now, a new study reveals that the Nordic diet produces health benefits beyond weight loss.

Previous studies have shown that the Nordic diet helps prevent obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These effects were assumed to be associated with the weight loss recorded by people following the diet. The new study – conducted by scientists from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland – indicates that these positive health benefits are irrespective of weight loss.

“It’s surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play,” explained Lars Ove Dragsted, a researcher and head of section at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports.

The researchers asked 200 people, all over 50 years of age, and all with elevated BMI and increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to eat either the Nordic diet or their own, unaltered diet (control diet), for a period of 18–24 weeks. In all instances, the participants were required to keep their weight stable during the research period, meaning that, if a participant began to lose weight, he or she was asked to eat more in order to remain weight stable.

Blood and urine samples were taken on a regular basis and were analyzed for the levels of blood glucose, lipoproteins, and triglycerides. The results, along with details of the study, are published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, and they show a very clear pattern. 

“The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group. We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health,” explained Dragsted.

Since the research design kept the weights of all participants stable, the positive health benefits measured were not the result of weight loss, as had been speculated in previous studies. Instead the researchers point to the unique composition of fats in a Nordic diet as a possible explanation for the significant health benefits.

“By analyzing the blood of participants, we could see that those who benefited most from the dietary change had different fat-soluble substances than the control group. These are substances that appear to be linked to unsaturated fatty acids from oils in the Nordic diet. This is a sign that Nordic dietary fats probably play the most significant role for the health effects seen here, which I hadn’t expected,” said Dragsted.

Fats in the Nordic diet come from fish, nuts, flaxseeds, sunflower and rapeseed oils, as well as from a small amount of low-fat dairy products. Red meat is not usually an ingredient in this diet. As a whole, the fats constitute a very beneficial mix, although the researchers have yet to understand why these fats seem to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

“We can only speculate as to why a change in fat composition benefits our health so greatly. However, we can confirm that the absence of highly processed food and less saturated fats from animals, have a very positive effect on us. So, the fat composition in the Nordic diet, which is higher in omega-3 and omega-6 unsaturated fats, is probably a considerable part of the explanation for the health effects we find from the Nordic diet, even when the weight of participants remains constant,” concluded Lars Ove Dragsted.

Other main ingredients of the Nordic diet include vegetables such as peas, beans, cabbage, onions and root vegetables, as well as fruits such as apples, pears, plums and berries.

The diet provides important fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and plant materials that have a positive effect on health and, among other things, reduce the risk of blood clots, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as cardiovascular disease in general. In addition, weight loss frequently results from following a Nordic dietary pattern and this is also beneficial for health.

“This study simply shows that it is not only weight loss that leads to the benefits of this diet. The unique composition of fats plays an important role as well,” said Lars Ove Dragsted.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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