The US News and World Report ranks many things each year, including diets. They evaluate each entry for short-term weight loss, long-term weight loss, general health benefits, and follow-ability. In 2021, many familiar favourites made the list: Mediterranean, flexitarian, and Weight Watchers among them. Coming in at ninth place, however, was one with less household recognition: the Nordic diet.
What is the Nordic diet, exactly? “It’s a healthy, whole-food, plant-centric diet that focuses on consuming more vegetables and fruit, whole grains instead of refined grains, and organic, local, and wild [food] as often as possible,” holistic nutritionist Maria Marlowe tells Vogue. “The Nordic diet is similar to paleo in its focus on whole, real foods and high-quality animal products, but places a larger emphasis on plant foods and wild seafood than meat.”
Think river-caught salmon instead of farmed; foraged berries instead of cultivated; and pasture-raised eggs (in moderation). Why? Wild foods are higher in nutrients – and, well, more delicious. “Taste-wise, wild and local foods will typically be more flavourful as they are presumably fresher or picked at the peak of ripeness,” says Marlowe. “What’s more, wild berries – a staple in the Nordic diet – are often smaller and more concentrated in both flavour and nutrition than the large, water-dense berries you find at the grocer.” (A 2010 Department of Agriculture analysis found that wild blueberries had double the antioxidants of farm-raised blueberries.) Other staples of the Nordic diet include oats, root vegetables, skyr yogurt, rapeseed oil, and legumes, as well as fatty fish like salmon and mackerel.
The health benefits are plentiful: numerous studies indicate that it lowers blood pressure, and improves heart health. And while it never needs to be the goal, the Nordic diet supports long-term rather than short-term weight loss. Simply put: it’s a lifestyle, rather than a temporary endeavour.
The Nordic diet isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. People in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden have explored eating this way for, well, centuries. But the concept has recently been both publicised and formalised. In the 2010s, Noma in Copenhagen won the title of World’s Best Restaurant four times (and when they didn’t win, they came in second). Then came the buzzy cookbooks. In 2015, Phaidon published The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson, which was rumoured to be on the Duke and Duchess Of Sussex’s secret wedding registry. Then, in 2017, came the popular The Nordic Way.
All the while, researchers from the University of Copenhagen collaborated with Noma to officially outline, and share, the Nordic diet’s central components. Come the new decade, Nordic gastronomy was firmly cemented as a wellness cuisine. When Williamsburg’s buzzy Bathhouse opened in November 2019, it did so with a Nordic and Japanese-inspired menu. This spring, Noma co-founder and celebrity chef Mads Refslund will revamp the culinary program and lead a wellness retreat at Water Mill’s Shou Sugi Ban House on Earth Day.
Refslund says he plans to home in on hyper-seasonal, local, and wild ingredients grown on Long Island – asparagus, kohlrabi, pattypan squash, blackcurrant leaves, fiddlehead ferns, and pickled green strawberries are just some of the ingredients found on the menu. He also has his culinary team foraging for young spruce tips, cattail shoots, and birch tree sap on Shou Sugi Ban House’s grounds. Some sample dishes they’ll serve up? Chickpea and hazelnut spread with toasted rye bread and bean sprouts, Boston mackerel with grilled heart of romaine, buttermilk and salted egg yolks, and grilled salmon belly with ginger and flowers from their garden. (He, too, likes to intertwine his Nordic menu with Asian influences.)
Refslund points that the Nordic diet goes beyond personal wellness. “A Nordic diet is predominantly plant-based so it’s easier on the environment because it requires fewer natural resources,” he explains. “We grow most of our ingredients, eat less processed foods and don’t eat as much beef as other cultures and instead incorporate freshwater fish, like salmon, mackerel and shellfish, lean cuts of pork or veal, and poultry as healthy proteins.”
That sustainability focus, perhaps, is behind the diet’s lasting appeal. While so many trendy culinary habits fall by the wayside – cabbage soup or South Beach diets, for example – eating the Nordic way is not only for your benefit, but everyone’s. “I think consumers are leaning more towards fresh, honest ingredients while trying to eat more locally sourced foods for freshness as they are becoming more aware about their environmental impact and the idea of eating closer to nature,” says Refslund.
However, the Nordic diet’s focus on local, wild, and low-impact ingredients can also present difficulties. It’s a bit hard to forage for berries when you live in a city – and not every supermarket carries wild meats. “The Nordic diet emphasises home cooking and local sourcing, which may not be practical or easy for many people,” admits Marlowe. “I say take what principles you can from the Nordic diet – for example, eating more whole veggies and organic berries, eliminating refined carbohydrates and processed foods, and choosing the highest quality sources of animal proteins.” She, for one, adds powdered Nordic berries into her morning breakfast bowls.
Or you can just copy what’s in Refslund’s fridge. “I always have rye bread on hand as well as a variety of whole grains (amaranth, chia seeds, oats); fresh fruits, leafy greens and root vegetables; eggs, nuts and seeds; and freshwater fish, as well as yogurt and cheeses.”
More from British Vogue: