By Tina Benitez-Eves
Sure, the Mediterranean diet continues to take top billing as the world's healthiest eating plan. Low in saturated fat and high in antioxidants and fiber, the Mediterranean diet's balance of fish, olive oil, fruits, legumes and vegetables may actually help you live a longer life. But is it really the best-for-you meal plan on the planet?
North of the Mediterranean—way north—there's another eating routine that's geared toward guys who want more energy, better performance (in the gym and at home) and some extra longevity. It's called The Nordic Diet, and it's the everyday meal plan of fitness-conscious, green-minded Scandinavians from Oslo to Reykjavik.
While you might associate the region's cuisine with starch-ridden potatoes and the gravy-soaked Swedish meatballs you’re likely to find at IKEA, most Nordics eat simple food that's raw and in season.
Trine Hahnemann, author of The Nordic Diet says that Scandinavian food consumption is built on what's local, in-season and tastes good. “To be healthy, the most important thing is to eat tasty food that will fulfill your senses,” says Hahnemann. “Grains, vegetables and fatty fish will sustain you, give you more energy and lead to a better quality of life.”
Herring, salmon or mackerel are a must, according to Lars-Erik Litsfeldt, author of Diabetes, No Thanks (Scandinavian Diet).
Rich in protein and other nutrients and low in calories, fish is filled with omega-3 fats, which serve as an anti-inflammatory and balance omega-6 fats. People generally get 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3 according to Litsfeldt. “The ideal amount would be close to a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3,” he explains. “It might be bad to eat something that contains inflammatory fat, but we still need some. It's used when the body defends itself from intruders.”
Spelt, rye, oats and barley are some of the main grains grown in colder climates. Incorporating fiber-rich grains into any diet helps with digestion and packs in the protein. Studies have shown that rye can help fight cancer, in particular prostate and colon cancer. Rye breads are the core of the Nordic diet, according to Hahnemann. “We eat slices of rye bread for lunch or breakfast every day,” she says. “Nordic diets even use rye flakes in porridge, and whole grains are boiled and used in soup and eaten instead of rice for dinner and used in pizza and tart crust.”
Blueberries, blackberries, red and black currants, raspberries, rose hips and even the more Nordic lingonberries, cloudberries are better than regular fruit, according to Litfeldt. They're sweet without using any refined sugar, so they're a better way to satisfy your sweet tooth than a can of soda of a slice of cake. If you don’t have access to Scandinavian lingonberries or cloudberries, opt for the more abundant (and just as antioxidant-rich) blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in the U.S. Hahnemann says that the Nordic region is rich in berries because of all the light during the summer, which keeps the fruits rich in antioxidants, ripe and tasty. High in vitamin C, berries are eaten morning through night in Scandinavia—added to AM yogurt and oatmeal, and added to teas and grilled alongside fish and meats in the evening.
Low in calories and high in protein, root vegetables are at their seasonal best in the fall or winter. Carrots, beets, parsnips, parsley root, Jerusalem artichokes and all that grow beneath are rooted in the Scandi-diet, according to Hahnemann. Of course, nutrient-rich green veggies like nettles, ramps, garlic, Swiss chard, asparagus, peas, spinach and leeks are just as prevalent in Nordic meals. “Vegetables are so important in our diet,” says Hahnemann. “Because of the climate, we have to eat less meat and instead eat locally grown vegetables.”
The other “super” veggie gets a category all its own. Whether white, red or savoy, the close relative of kale and Brussels sprouts grows well in cooler climates and is packed with iron and other vitamins and minerals, Hahnemann says. In fact, the University of Oslo found that cabbage contains some of the highest levels of antioxidants in any vegetable and are good source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K. Pack some cabbage into stews, salads and on pizza or wherever these leaves may fit.