The Nordic Diet: Eat like your ancestors

Photo: Synøve Dreyer / TINE Mediebank When things like this are part of your “diet,” it’s not hard to stick to.

Photo: Synøve Dreyer / TINE Mediebank
When things like this are part of your “diet,” it’s not hard to stick to.

Emily Vikre
Duluth, Minn.

In a world almost as full of diets as it is of food, more and more we’re being told things like “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t have recognized as food,” or “eat like your ancestors.”

It’s easy to problematize these suggestions, or at least be confused by them. My great-grandmother probably would recognize a cake, but I don’t think most people who advocate an ancestral diet would recommend eating plenty of cake. Not to mention that some of my ancestors probably subsisted mainly on potatoes, or puffin, or cow’s blood. They may not have had problems with obesity or type II diabetes on those diets, but they had micronutrient deficiencies, parasites, and a host of other problems that I’d rather avoid.

There isn’t any scientific evidence (thus far) saying that we benefit from eating precisely, food for food, what our ancestors ate. The idea behind these diets is mostly to guide us away from heavily processed, refined, or sugary foods—foods that weren’t available at all prior to the industrial revolution—and toward eating whole foods cooked at home.

This is where the Mediterranean Diet or the Nordic Diet come in. They’re modern, varied diets, based on the traditionally available foods of a region. They’re not so much diets as eating patterns, which is a nice approach. You don’t deprive yourself of any major food groups or demonize a particular food. You don’t completely cut out anything, but instead focus on making the bulk of your diet from healthier whole foods.

I imagine you’ve heard of the Mediterranean Diet, but the Nordic Diet may be news to you. It hasn’t been popularized or studied to the same extent, but a few studies have shown that people who follow it, when compared to people eating a more standard Western diet (high in processed foods, sugar, meat, and unhealthy fats), have seen weight loss, lower blood pressure, and lower blood lipids.

What is the Nordic Diet? In a simple word, delicious. It grew out of the Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine. Conceived by a group of Nordic chefs in 2004, the manifesto called on Nordic chefs to focus on the pure, simple ingredients particular to their region and to reflect the changes of seasons in their meals. The staples of the Nordic Diet are oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring); whole grains (rye, oats, and barley); vegetables (especially root vegetables like carrots, rutabagas, and beets, and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli); and lots of berries and orchard fruits. The diet also includes wild meats (think reindeer!) and grass-fed meats, especially using the whole animal; some dairy, particularly in fermented formats like kefir and yogurt; and wild-foraged foods like herbs, onions, berries, and mushrooms.

Sounds pretty good, right? I like to think of the Nordic Diet as similar to the Mediterranean Diet, just colder. Tomatoes and their cancer-fighting lycopene are switched out for cabbages and strawberries with their own cancer-fighting anthocyanins. Meals of oily fishes are swapped for, well, meals of oily fishes. But where the Nordic Diet does one better on the Mediterranean Diet is in its explicit focus on seasonality and local ingredients.

So, what might some meals following a Nordic Diet pattern look like?

For breakfast you might have oatmeal porridge with berries or apples, or kefir with berries, or rye crisps with cold smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and cucumbers.

For lunch you could have a slice of sourdough rye bread with a topping like shrimp, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes; liver pâté with pickled beets; a couple slices of hard yellow cheese with slices of pepper and cucumber; or herring and pickles.

And for dinner you might try dishes like poached salmon with dill-butter sauce and roasted cauliflower; or lamb and cabbage stew; or cod with wild mushroom cream sauce and parsnip purée; or reindeer and root vegetable stew.

Now if only someone would come cook them for me!

Emily Vikre is a Norwegian-American dual citizen who grew up in Minnesota but spent summers at her family’s hytte in Southern Norway. After receiving a PhD in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition, Emily and her husband Joel moved back to Duluth, Minn., to start Vikre Distillery (vikredistillery.com). Emily is also an enthusiastic cook, recipe developer, and food writer and has contributed to Lucky Peach, Food52, Cake & Whiskey Magazine, and Minnesota Public Radio.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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