Mediterranean Diet vs. Nordic Diet

Every culture has its own take on what makes a healthy diet. Often the variations between cuisines of different regions is based on what's locally available. For example, the corn that America is so well known for isn't grown in all corners of the world, while the chickpeas and olives that give Middle Eastern dishes their recognizable flair may be less widely available in other parts of the world.

Two regionally-inspired approaches to healthy eating have made the leap to formal, recognizable diets. Both the Mediterranean diet, which approximates the dietary habits of people living near the Mediterranean Sea, and the Nordic diet, which mimics a health-conscious, modern Scandinavian approach to food and lifestyle, are now considered good options for people everywhere.

[See: The 10 Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]

Mediterranean Diet Overview

The Mediterranean diet has been a favorite of dietitians the world over for many years. Developed in the 1960s as a means of reducing the incidence of heart disease, the Mediterranean diet borrows many principals of eating from several southern European countries that border the Mediterranean, including Greece, Spain and Italy.

"The Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of whole grains and legumes, which are important sources of fiber in our diet," says Lindsay Collier, clinical dietitian specialist with Westchester Medical Center. "The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based proteins with fish, poultry and meats consumed weekly, not daily."

It also includes lots of heart-healthy olive oil. Cheeses, particularly those made from sheep's or goat's milk -- such as feta, chevre and pecorino -- are used in many Mediterranean dishes. Yogurt, specifically thick, creamy Greek yogurt, is also part of the diet.

The Mediterranean diet is all about moderation and is a pattern of eating, rather than a restrictive diet. As such, no food is off limits, but dairy, red meat, sweets and processed foods are consumed in smaller quantities, Collier says. "The Mediterranean diet encourages moderation of dairy but does not encourage restriction and also promotes mindful eating behaviors."

Nordic Diet Overview

Like the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet borrows eating principles from people living in one region, specifically the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. "It's quite similar to the Mediterranean diet in that it emphasizes whole grains, such as barley, rye and oats, berries, vegetables, fatty fish and legumes, and it is low in sweets and red meat," the International Food Information Council Foundation reports.

The Nordic diet favors a plant-first approach that also includes moderate amounts of fish and eggs and some dairy products. Because the emphasis is on using locally-sourced and sustainably-harvested produce, the fish featured in the Nordic diet tend to be the fatty, cold-water fish indigenous to the region -- herring, mackerel, salmon and sardines. These fish are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

You may also see a smattering of fermented and pickled foods on the Nordic diet, such as yogurt and kefir, pickled herring and pickled vegetables. Fermented foods help support a healthy digestive system.

Because it emphasizes local, in-season produce, the Nordic diet may also be better for the environment than the standard American diet, which tends to favor processed foods and year-round availability of most fruits and vegetables. Cultivation of red meat has also been linked to environmental concerns, so diets that include less of these foods may be better for the planet.

The standard American diet is also typically heavy in salt and processed foods. A plant-based approach can eliminate some of those issues, says Shelley Wood, clinical dietitian with the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. "Americans often eat diets high in saturated fat, sugar and sodium (salt) because of their high intake of processed and fast foods. By eliminating such foods and increasing plant-based foods, nutrient intake is increased substantially, which positively impacts short-term and long-term health."

The biggest difference between the Mediterranean and Nordic diets comes in the type of oil used. While the Mediterranean diet favors locally-available and plentiful olive oil, olives aren't in abundance in Nordic countries. Therefore, rapeseed oil, also known as canola oil, is the primary fat source. Canola oil offers similar health benefits to olive oil, and it's been associated with improved cardiovascular health.

Health Benefits

Mediterranean diet. "Multiple studies and reviews have been published showing benefits for diabetes, cardiovascular health including stroke prevention, and limited data linking the Mediterranean diet to the prevention of Alzheimer's and depression," Collier says. Reduced risk and better management of Type 2 diabetes has also been associated with the Mediterranean diet. Because it's high in fiber and reduces intake of processed and red meats, the Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer.

[See: 13 Best Fish: High in Omega-3s -- and Environment-Friendly.]

Nordic diet. The new Nordic diet is a newer approach, with the principles being established in 2004 by a group of nutritional scientists based in Copenhagen, Denmark. But it has its roots in traditional Scandinavian dietary habits. Because the diet is relatively new, it hasn't been studied as extensively as older protocols like the Mediterranean diet, but it follows similar principles, and the health benefits are thought to be similar.

Sustainably-grown, locally-sourced fruits and vegetables form the cornerstone of the diet. These foods provide lots of fiber, vitamins and nutrients that are integral to good health. The inclusion of healthy fats and fatty fish, such as herring and salmon, that are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids can also improve overall health, reduce incidence of Type 2 diabetes and reduce risk of certain types of cancer and other chronic diseases. Look for more research in the near future as studies into the diet's health benefits increase.

Because both the Mediterranean and Nordic diets emphasize plant-based sources of nutrition, they can be a great alternative to other ways of eating. "Any diet that includes primarily plants is healthier than the alternative," Wood says. "When eating abundantly from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, you are effectively reducing calorie consumption, which can assist with weight loss and healthy weight maintenance." That, in turn, can reduce obesity, a contributing factor to many chronic diseases.

Additionally, plant-based foods are nutrient-dense, "meaning they have more nutrients for their weight than the equivalent weight of processed or fast foods. Increasing plant-based foods also increases vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants, which are beneficial for health and avoidance of chronic disease," Wood says.

Health Risks

Mediterranean diet. "No specific health risks are known to be linked to the Mediterranean diet," Collier says. But notes that in some interpretations, moderate amounts of red wine may be included, and " alcohol consumption is not appropriate for everyone."

Nordic diet. Few if any specific health risks have been associated with the Nordic diet. That said, changing how you eat can alter your intake of certain nutrients, so it's best to seek the advice of a registered dietitian or other nutritional expert before you radically change what you're eating.

Though an increased intake of certain types of fish can increase levels of mercury that could have health impacts, the smaller the fish, typically the less mercury it has in its body. Because much of the seafood on the Nordic diet are smaller in size and thus lower on the food chain, they tend not to have as much mercury contamination as larger fish, such as tuna or swordfish. Sardines, anchovies, herring and salmon are all considered better seafood options. And because fish is not eaten every day on the Nordic diet, mercury poisoning is not a major concern.

Costs

Collier says the Mediterranean diet can be followed on a budget, and that working with a registered dietitian can help you find more economical ways to sticking with the plan. Beans, lentils and bulk whole grains are some of the least expensive items in the grocery store, so diets that rely on these may be budget friendly.

Because the Nordic diet favors organic produce, it could be a bit pricier than some other options out there. However, if you opt for conventionally-grown produce rather than only buying organic fruits and vegetables, that could cut down your grocery bill.

[See: 10 Cheap Plant-Based Meals.]

Weight Loss

Both diets can be good choices if you're trying to lose weight. However, you need to keep portions in check. It's entirely possible to gain weight on either diet if you're eating too much food.

The Mediterranean diet tied for 17th place on U.S. News' Best Weight-Loss Diets in 2019. A 2018 study in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes found that the Mediterranean diet was associated with lower levels of weight gain and a lower increase in waist circumference over the 12-year span of the study.

The Nordic diet tied for 26th place in the 2019 best weight-loss ranking. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Proteome Research that compared the new Nordic diet to an average Danish diet (which like the standard American diet is higher in fat, sugar, meat and processed foods), participants on the Nordic diet were more likely to lose weight. Studies are ongoing, but again, moderation and portion control are the key to losing weight with most any diet -- the Nordic diet included.

Which One Is Better?

The Mediterranean diet has consistently ranked No. 1 overall in U.S. News' Best Diets rankings. In 2019, the Nordic diet tied for 9th overall.

These two diets are very similar in terms of health benefits, risks, costs and weight loss, so the determination of which is better largely comes down to taste. Do you prefer the olive-based flavors of southern Europe? Or do you like a more Scandinavian flair to your dishes?

For her part, Collier says she recommends the Mediterranean to patients frequently. "At Westchester Medical Center, I work most often with patients after a stroke and the Mediterranean diet is a great option for these patients, as well as anyone wanting a healthier lifestyle."


Mediterranean Diet

Nordic Diet

Food

Plant-based approach with seafood and limited poultry and dairy products. Meat, sweets and processed foods are limited.


Preference for whole foods over processed foods.


Features southern European flavors and foods such as eggplant and olive oil.

Plant-based approach with local and sustainably harvested seafood. Some dairy, eggs and fermented foods. Meat, sweets and processed foods are limited.


Preference for whole foods over processed foods.


Features northern European flavors and foods such as herring and canola oil.

Weight Loss

If portions are controlled, weight loss can be achieved and maintained.

If portions are controlled, weight loss can be achieved and maintained.

Health Risks

None.

None.

Health Benefits

Potential cardiovascular benefits, including lowered cholesterol and blood pressure and reduced risk of stroke.


Reduced risk of certain cancers.


Reduced risk of developing diabetes and better management of Type 2 diabetes.

Potential cardiovascular benefits, including lowered cholesterol and blood pressure and reduced risk of stroke.


Reduced risk of certain cancers.


Reduced risk of developing diabetes and better management of Type 2 diabetes.

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