The Mediterranean diet consistently gets ranked as not only one of the “best” diet options, but also one of the easier ones to follow. Inspired by the diets of those who live—you guessed it—around the Mediterranean Sea, its initial science backing has roots in a study on heart disease risk in United States, the Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, and Japan that took place in the 1950s and 1960s.
But that region isn’t the only area to have an eponymous diet: more recently, the Nordic Diet has been getting press as an alternative. It was created by researchers at the University of Copenhagen in collaboration with a founder of Noma, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Copenhagen and is based on the traditional diets in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, and Iceland.
But how do these two European inspired diets stack up? That was the subject of a recent research review published in Frontiers In Nutrition—which hoped to provide more clarity on how they can be harnessed for health.
Which European inspired diet is superior?
So to begin, we have to ask: did the review find a conclusive winner for “overall health?” No, it didn’t. According to the researchers, “While longitudinal epidemiological studies support adherence to MD [the Mediterranean diet] as a way to prevent chronic diseases, ND [the Nordic diet] still needs more such studies because the current results are discrepant.”
It’s not entirely surprising that there’s more evidence about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet—it’s been researched for a longer period of time. But they also mention that some studies that have looked at the two diets together have concluded that the Nordic diet has potential to be as advantageous for some people.
What do these diets have in common?
In truth, breaking out the diets shows many common threads—ones that link back to the basics of healthy eats. They’re both technically considered plant-based diets (here’s our review of how that’s different than a vegan diet), with even protein largely derived from plant sources.
“The Mediterranean diet and the Nordic diet share more similarities than differences,” write the study authors, “Both diets are based on typical local and seasonal foods, share similar nutritional recommendations based on plant-based dietary principles, and are both now orienting toward environmental protection and sustainability.”
The big emphasis in both these diets is a reduced reliance on meat, instead eating more vegetables and prioritizing heart-healthy fish (hello, omega-3s) when meat is eaten. They also both encourage a focus on whole grains, picking organic seasonal produce where possible, and cutting back on (or cutting out) processed foods.
In fact, the Mediterranean diet food pyramid actually places fruits and vegetables in the bottom section with whole grains—if you recall from learning the old food pyramid in school, that space was reserved for bread alone. With all we know about dietary guidelines today, it makes sense to have vegetables as the foundation of the pyramid, and though the Nordic diet doesn’t have its own pyramid we can guess veggies would be at the base of it, too.
What makes them different?
The key differences in the diets, according to the review, comes up on the topic of fats: “The main difference between the two diets is the primary fat source. Olive oil is the synonym for MD [the Mediterranean diet] while the ND [the Nordic diet] uses more rapeseed/canola oil.”
Though that one ingredients swap may not seem like enough to matter, because they’re used in cooking almost everything it can add up. Olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil, is known for its health benefits thanks to high polyphenol content and other beneficial bioactives like omega-9 fatty acids. By contrast, rapeseed oil is less conclusively agreed to have benefits. It’s popular in cooking for its low smoke point, but the way it’s processed means most of it has less essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins—though cold pressed, extra virgin versions do exist and may be better.
Some of the other specific foods emphasized in each diet are also different, due to the vastly different environments from which the diets began. In the Mediterranean, as mentioned, olive oil reigns supreme—but is it any surprise the same isn’t true of the Nordic diet where the colder climate means there’s not a hope of cultivating olives?
In the Nordic diet, other key foods include berries, cabbage, apples, pears, root vegetables, oats, rye, and fermented milk—all of which have their own unique health benefits, though the writers of this review are careful to remind us that one isolated component of the diet doesn’t necessarily decide its holistic potential. In the Mediterranean diet, the guidelines emphasize seasonal eating even more and go for cereals, vegetables, and fruit, and low-fat dairy products with only a few servings of fish or white meat per week.
The more detailed breakdowns of the diets are also different: when looking at how the different macronutrients should be contributing to daily energy intake, this is how they breakdown (according to a literature review of the Mediterranean diet and the Nordic Co-operation, respectfully). Though the profiles aren’t that different, the key seems to be different emphases on fats and protein.
When it comes down to it, the study concludes that both diets “can be implemented and perhaps even alternated as a part of a healthy lifestyle, regardless of the geographical location.” However, because the Mediterranean diet has been researched and analyzed more for health, additional research and longitudinal studies on the Nordic diet are necessary to catch up. But what is clear (because they have it in common) is that diets that emphasize whole foods—especially more vegetables and less meat—are best for supporting health.*