Tempted by foods commonly part of a Nordic diet? Foods like berries, fish, grains, and vegetables? If so, you’re doing your cholesterol count a great favor, according to a 2013 Swedish study.
Researchers at Lund University in Lund, Sweden, and other Swedish research centers, divided 166 people who had some features of metabolic syndrome into two groups: For 18-24 weeks, one group ate a healthy Nordic diet: whole-grains, berries, fruits, vegetables, rapeseed oil (a vegetable oil made from rapeseed), fish three times a week, and low-fat dairy products. The other group ate less fiber, more salt and more dairy fat.
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Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that raises the risk of heart disease, such as high blood pressure; high insulin levels; high cholesterol; and excess weight, especially around the waist.
“The Nordic diet decreased bad cholesterol and increased good cholesterol,” says study author Lieselotte Cloetens, PhD, a biomedical researcher at Lund University. “We estimate that the ratio of bad to good cholesterol improved [enough] that it may reduce [death from heart] disease some 10 to 15 percent within five to 10 years.”
Cloetens says that if you mimic a Nordic diet, you can expect to see changes in your cholesterol numbers within three months.
The researchers also found that the Nordic diet lowered inflammation. “Those changes in the long run may result in some 20 to 40 percent reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes,” says Cloetens. Inflammation, particularly when produced by fat cells, appears to increase insulin resistance and lower production of insulin. Such changes can lead to type 2 diabetes.
But you don’t have to live in Norway or Sweden to reap the heart-healthy benefits of the Nordic diet. We can all imitate a Nordic diet to keep our cholesterol numbers—and hearts—healthy. Here’s how.
Go fishing. “Fish such as salmon, trout and tuna contain [anti-inflammatory acids] that defend against atherosclerosis (build-up of fatty plaque in the blood vessels]), heart attacks, blood vessel inflammation, and other diseases,” says dietician and nutritionist Jim White, RDN, ACSM-HFS, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish a week.
Get the whole-grain habit. “Consistent consumption of whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat, bulgar, oatmeal, popcorn) and low amounts of saturated fats help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol,” says White.
Trade butter for olive oil. Scandinavians use rapeseed oil, says Cloetens, but olive oil is also a healthy substitute for butter. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, healthier than dairy foods’ saturated fats, which raise cholesterol.
Bump up fruits, especially berries. Antioxidants called anthocyanidins abound in blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, red cabbage, red onions and red or black grapes, says White. They not only make those foods colorful, but they appear to lower bad cholesterol, prevent blood clots and ward off cancer.
Root for vegetables. Scandinavians love cold-weather root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips and rutabagas. Their soluble, or indigestible, fiber lowers bad cholesterol. They are also low in sodium and high in vitamins like A, E and C, and minerals like calcium and magnesium. Cut a variety into chunks, toss with olive oil and herbs, and roast for about 20 minutes in a hot oven—an easy treat.