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The Nordic diet for better brain health

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The Nordic diet is the dietary pattern followed in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. The Nordic diet encourages a shift towards a “plant-based” eating pattern, like it's better-known counterpart, the Mediterranean diet. The World Health Organization has commended the Nordic countries for being the leaders in environmentally sustainable diets [1], making the Nordic diet good for you and your planet.  

New Nordic Diet: a deeper insight

The New Nordic Diet was developed in 2009 and focuses on healthy food, cultural diversity, and environmental sustainability [2]. This diet encourages intake of more calories from plant foods and fewer calories from meat products. It also recommends intake of foods from the sea, lakes, and wild countryside.

The following are the recommended amounts (grams/day) in the New Nordic Diet food list:

Dietary component

Recommended intake (grams/day)

Total fruits

  • Berries

More than 300g 

  • 50-100g

Total vegetables 

  • Cabbages
  • Root vegetables
  • Legumes

More than 400g

  • More than 29g
  • More than 150g
  • More than 30g

Fresh herbs

As much as possible

Potatoes

More than 140g

Plants and mushrooms from the wild 

5g

Whole grains

More than 75g

Nuts

More than 30g

Fish and shellfish

More than 43g

Seaweed

5g

Free range livestock (including pork and chicken)

85-100g


A closer look at the recommendations highlights specific brain-friendly foods that can be incorporated to supercharge your brain.

Nordic diet benefits for the brain 

A 2021 scientific review on brain foods, listed the Nordic diet as one of the brain protective diets [3]. High adherence to the Nordic diet was associated with lower cognitive decline, compared to other brain-protective diets like the Mediterranean and MIND diets [4]. Those with a high adherence to the diet had an almost 20% higher chance of living a dementia-free life [5]. Long term followers (4+ years) of the Nordic diet were found to perform better in memory and language tests [6]. These participants had a higher intake of fruits, berries, and fish. 

Mediterranean vs Nordic diets: what is the difference?

The Mediterranean diet is based on dietary practices in the Mediterranean region covering 22 countries including Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey. The term was coined in the 1950s and it is one of the most extensively studied diets for brain health. A 2022 review of 28 studies found that following the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40% and improve mental skills and memory [7].

The Nordic diet has recently gained exposure, with more studies underway in the near future. It can be expected that the Nordic diet will have similar brain benefits as the Mediterranean diet due to the many similarities between them. Both diets are plant-based and encourage higher intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and limit intake of meat.

The main difference between the two diets is the type of oil used. The Mediterranean diet is olive oil based while the Nordic diet predominantly uses rapeseed oil. Rapeseed oil has 10 times more ALA (plant-based omega 3 fat) than olive oil [8]. ALA can be converted to brain-beneficial fat like DHA, though this conversion is limited (<10%) [9] and there are considerable losses in processing and cooking. 

Nordic diet: Brain-boosting components

Two brain-building foods that should be a part of your Nordic diet meal plan are berries and fish. These two foods have been proven to build a better brain.

Berries: Nordic berries like bilberry, blackcurrant, blueberry, lingonberry, and cloudberry have shown to improve memory and fix high-fat diets induced brain damage in animal studies [10]. A review of 49 human studies found that berries, especially blueberries, blackcurrants and bilberries, increased attention, processing speed, and memory [11]. The cognitive benefits can be attributed to the anthocyanin content (beneficial plant compound), which increases blood flow to the brain and helps in forming new brain connections. Along with other nutrients in berries, these help to reduce inflammation and brain damage, providing all-rounded protection [12].

Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel and herring are the commonly consumed fishes in the Nordic diet. These are the richest sources of DHA, a type of omega 3 fat needed for a healthier brain. 25% of your brain is structurally made of DHA, which plays a major role in protecting the outer layer of the brain and reducing inflammation [13][14]. Increasing DHA intake can increase size of brain areas involved in learning and memory and improve processing speed [15]. Including just 1 portion of fish per week can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 60% [18].

The European Food Safety Authority recommends intake of DHA at 500 mg/day to meet needs [16]. With the Nordic recommendations of 200-300g fish intake per week, it is easy to obtain high amounts of DHA when following the Nordic diet.

The nordic diet Nordic diet meal plan Nordic diet food list mediterranean vs nordic diet benefits

References

  1. World Health Organization. (2021). Making diets environmentally friendly: Nordic countries lead the way.
  2. Mithril, C. et al. (2012). Guidelines for the New Nordic Diet. Public health nutrition15(10), 1941–1947.
  3. Ekstrand, B. et al. (2021). Brain foods - the role of diet in brain performance and health. Nutrition reviews, 79(6), 693–708.
  4. Shakersain, B. et al. (2018). The Nordic Prudent Diet Reduces Risk of Cognitive Decline in the Swedish Older Adults: A Population-Based Cohort Study. Nutrients10(2), 229.
  5. Wu, W. et al. (2021). The Nordic prudent diet prolongs survival with good mental and physical functioning among older adults: The role of healthy lifestyle. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland)40(8), 4838–4844.
  6. Männikkö, R. et al. (2015). The Nordic diet and cognition--The DR's EXTRA Study. The British journal of nutrition114(2), 231–239.
  7. Fu, J. et al. (2022) Association between the Mediterranean diet and cognitive health among healthy adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Nutrition. 9:946361
  8. Hoffman, R., & Gerber, M. (2014). Can rapeseed oil replace olive oil as part of a Mediterranean-style diet? British Journal of Nutrition, 112(11),
  9. Healthline. (2019). The 3 Most Important Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
  10. Huang, F. et al. (2022). Identification of Nordic Berries with Beneficial Effects on Cognitive Outcomes and Gut Microbiota in High-Fat-Fed Middle-Aged C57BL/6J Mice. Nutrients14(13), 2734.
  11. Ahles, S. et al. (2021). Effects of Berry Anthocyanins on Cognitive Performance, Vascular Function and Cardiometabolic Risk Markers: A Systematic Review of Randomized Placebo-Controlled Intervention Studies in Humans. International journal of molecular sciences22(12), 6482.
  12. De Amicis, R. et al. (2022). Systematic Review on the Potential Effect of Berry Intake in the Cognitive Functions of Healthy People. Nutrients. 14, 2977.
  13. Guesnet, P. et al. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the developing central nervous system (CNS) - Implications for dietary recommendations. Biochimie, [online] 93(1), pp.7–12.
  14. Calder, P.C. (2016). Docosahexaenoic Acid. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 69(1), pp.8–21. 
  15. Witte, A.V. et al. (2013). Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Brain Function and Structure in Older Adults. Cerebral Cortex, 24(11), pp.3059–3068. 
  16. European Food Safety Authority. (2012). Scientific Opinion on the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA).
  17. Self.com. (2007). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator.
  18. Morris, M.C. et al. (2003). Consumption of Fish and n-3 Fatty Acids and Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease. Archives of Neurology, [online] 60(7), p.94






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