A new study adds support to the idea that eating better foods is beneficial even without obtaining weight loss – with the Nordic diet reducing blood sugar and cholesterol even when no weight was lost.
"It's surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss," University of Copenhagen nutritionist Lars Ove Dragsted said. "Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play."
While the better-known and thoroughly studied Mediterranean diet is highly recommended for good health, it is not always practical for people in other regions of the world to consume, due to limitations of what grows locally or cultural challenges.
So the concept of healthy regional diets, like the Nordic diet, has been developed, using equivalent food items that are easily available locally and traditionally eaten in the region.
The Nordic diet has many similarities to the Mediterranean diet with an emphasis on plant-based foods, with moderate amounts of fish and eggs, and a small amount of dairy.
Both limit processed foods, sweets, and meats, but the Nordic diet favors canola oil over olive, which has some healthy omega-3 fatty acids similar to those found in fish.
It includes berries, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and beans amongst other fruits and vegetables, whole-grain cereals like rye and barley, as well as fatty fish.
In the new study, Dragsted and colleagues analyzed regular blood and urine samples from 200 overweight volunteers over the age of 50 from six centers across Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland during a four-week period where they ate their usual diet.
They sampled them again during another 19-24 weeks when half the participants followed the Nordic diet and the others followed a control diet. Both diets were calculated so that the volunteers maintained a stable weight.
"The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier," explained Dragsted, "with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group."
The team detected differences in fat-soluble substances in the patients who benefitted most from the diet change.
"The fat composition in the Nordic diet, which is higher in omega-3 and omega-6 unsaturated fats, is probably a considerable part of the explanation for the health effects we find from the Nordic diet, even when the weight of participants remains constant," explained Dragsted.
These fats come from fish, flaxseeds, sunflower, and canola oil, but how they influence both blood sugar and cholesterol levels is still to be investigated
"We can confirm that the absence of highly processed food and less saturated fats from animals have a very positive effect on us," Dragsted concluded.
With obesity levels rising around the world, contributing to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and other diseases, researchers stress that weight loss remains important, but that it's not the only factor contributing to the Nordic diet's benefits.
Similar results have also been found with the Mediterranean diet – with a huge, long-term study of 79,000 people revealing those who mostly stuck to the diet had better mortality outcomes regardless of their weight.
A 2018 study also indicated focusing on types of foods rather than portions can be a more effective and more sustainable method for weight loss. But how effective any particular diet ends up being may also depend on the quality of foods you can afford.
So focusing on healthy food choices (to the best of our ability!) could prove more beneficial to those of us struggling with our weight than shaming ourselves – or each other – over how heavy we are.
This research was published in Clinical Nutrition.