The Nordic diet could 'hold key to childhood obesity' - but what is it?

·5-min read
New research has revealed starting babies on a Nordic diet could be key to tackling childhood obesity. (Getty Images)
New research has revealed starting babies on a Nordic diet could be key to tackling childhood obesity. (Getty Images)

Starting babies on the Nordic diet could hold the key to beating child obesity, new research has suggested.

The diet is rich in low protein foods like berries, fish, root vegetables and whole grains and is believed to instil healthier eating habits in those who follow it.

The study findings, presented at an ESPGHAN meeting in Copenhagen, saw infants aged four to six months fed taster portions, alongside breast or formula milk.

A year later participants were eating almost double the number of vegetables than those fed conventional baby foods.

Lead author Dr Ulrica Johansson, a paediatrician at Umea University in Sweden, said there did not appear to be any side effects.

"A Nordic diet with reduced protein introduced to infants naive to this model of eating, increased the intake of fruit, berries, vegetables, and roots, establishing a preferable eating pattern lasting over a 12-month period," she explains.

"There were no negative effects on breastfeeding duration, iron status or growth."

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The Nordic diet includes plenty of whole foods and root vegetables. (Getty Images)
The Nordic diet includes plenty of whole foods and root vegetables. (Getty Images)

The World Health Organisation has said Britain could lower rates of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease by embracing a Nordic-style diet.

Analysis shows that 2.5 million children in England are overweight or obese, with one in five obese by the time they leave primary school.

Researchers are hoping their findings could contribute to forming part of a solution for tackling the childhood obesity problem.

Dr Johansson and colleagues followed 250 babies through to 18 months of age. The trial found marked differences in dietary habits in the two groups.

Parents of those on the Nordic diet were supplied with home-made recipes, protein-reduced baby food products and offered support via social media.

The infants consumed 42 to 45% more fruit and vegetables at 12-18 months of age, compared to those who were fed the conventional diet currently recommended by the Swedish Food Agency.

While fruit consumption within the conventional group remained consistent, babies fed the conventional diet reduced their vegetable intake by 36% between 12-18 months.

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Babies on the Nordic diet had an average protein intake 17-29% lower than those on the conventional diet at 12-18 months of age.

This was still within recommended protein intake levels and the overall calorie count between the two groups was the same.

The protein reduction in the Nordic diet group was replaced by more carbohydrates from vegetables, not more cereals, together with some extra fat from rapeseed oil.

Dr Johansson said there did not appear to be any negative effects from having a lower protein intake.

She added: "A Nordic diet reduced in protein is safe, feasible and may contribute to sustainable and healthy eating during infancy and early childhood."

The novel research could pave the way to broadening the taste spectrum in infants and potentially provide an effective strategy for encouraging healthier eating habits early in life.

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The Nordic diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet. (Getty Images)
The Nordic diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet. (Getty Images)

What is the Nordic diet?

The Nordic diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet, except it is based on foods that grow better in cold rather than warm climates.

The eating regime has a higher intake of regionally and seasonally produced fruit, berries, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, tubers and legumes.

It is also abundant in whole grains, vegetable fats and oils, fish and eggs - and lacking in meat and dairy foods, sweets and desserts.

Typical fruits include the lingonberry, buckthorn berry, cranberry, raspberry, and blueberry.

Nordic vegetables are rich in fibre - such as turnip, beets, swede, root celery, carrots, parsnip, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale.

"The Nordic diet is based around the consumption of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole-grains, nuts, seeds, fish, low-fat dairy, rapeseed oil, herbs and spices, a moderate consumption of cheese, eggs, poultry and a limited consumption of red meat and animal fats," explains nutritionist Jenna Hope.

"It also advises against consuming highly processed meats and fast food and sugar sweetened beverages.

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While this may sound similar to the Mediterranean diet, Hope says the Nordic diet actually promotes a higher consumption of plant foods than the Mediterranean diet does.

"It’s recommended to focus on oily fish on the Nordic diet, oily fish contains omega-3 which plays an important role in cognitive development in children," she adds.

Hope says there are some benefits to consuming a diet rich in whole foods for both adults and children.

"Consuming a more whole food diet can help to support nutritional needs and promote satiety which can moderate blood sugar and appetite," she explains.

"The research promoted a greater consumption of plants which are naturally lower in energy than many of the ultra-processed, high sugar foods and snacks available on the market for children today.

"Engaging your child in a whole food based varied and nutritious diet from a young can also promote a more diverse gut microbiome which in turn can support long term wellbeing and may even help to improve dietary choices too."