July 15, 2024

Healthy European cuisines from beyond the Mediterranean

Healthy European cuisines from beyond the Mediterranean

photo of presentations of food from the Nordic and Atlantic diets, both of which feature fish and vegetables

Inspired mainly by the cuisines of Greece and southern Italy, the Mediterranean diet is well established as one of the world’s healthiest eating patterns, particularly for preventing cardiovascular disease. But recent research has highlighted the benefits of traditional diets from elsewhere in Europe — namely, the Nordic diet (which features foods from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) and the Atlantic diet (which is inspired by the cuisine of northwest Spain and Portugal).

Both share many features with the Mediterranean diet, as they emphasize whole and minimally processed plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts. All three diets also feature seafood (which includes fish and shellfish) as one of the main sources of protein. Many types of seafood also contain heart-protecting omega-3 fatty acids. Known as EPA and DHA, these fats may help reduce heart disease risk by easing inflammation, preventing blood clot formation, and lowering levels of triglycerides, the most common type of fat-carrying particle in the bloodstream.

Better for the environment?

The variations in these three cuisines are based on what’s available locally in each region, an approach that has added benefits. “All of these diets focus on seasonal and local foods, which supports environmental health and sustainability,” says Marta Guasch-Ferre, adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. By supporting local farmers and producers, people contribute to their local economy while reducing food waste and the carbon footprint associated with food transportation, she adds. (That aspect has yet another link to cardiovascular disease; see “The heart-related hazards of air pollution” in the March 2022 Heart Letter.)

Taking inspiration from these European diets, aim to include more locally grown produce in your diet by shopping at farmers markets. They often have an abundant selection of vegetables and fruits during the summer growing season, and some are open year-round. Another option is to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which involves prepaying for a regular (usually weekly) share of locally grown farm products from a single farm or group of farms during the harvest season. To find one near you, go to the USDA’s searchable CSA directory.

While beef and pork are a traditional part of the Atlantic diet, they’re also included in the Nordic and Mediterranean diets, albeit in smaller amounts. “We know that frequent consumption of red meat is linked to a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease,” says Guasch-Ferre. That’s why nutrition experts suggest eating meat infrequently, ideally in small amounts added to other dishes, such as in soups, stews, and casseroles.

The Nordic diet

Staple foods include

  • wild-caught fish such as salmon, sardines, cod, mackerel, and herring
  • breads, crackers, and cereals made with whole grains like rye, barley, and oats (for example, a dense, dark Danish sourdough rye bread called rugbrød and Swedish knäckebröd, or crispbread.
  • root vegetables (potatoes and carrots)
  • cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower)
  • apples, pears, and berries, including those that thrive in northern climates, such as lingonberries (similar to cranberries) and bilberries, which resemble blueberries
  • canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil).


The Atlantic diet

Staple foods include

  • fresh, local seafood — mainly cod but also octopus, sardines, and tuna
  • beef and pork
  • whole-grain cereals and breads, pasta, and potatoes
  • legumes, especially white beans
  • seasonal vegetables including cabbage, collard greens, and turnips
  • vegetable soup
  • nuts such as chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts.

The Eurocentric advantage

Compared with the typical American diet, European diets tend to include far less highly processed junk food, which may be another reason they are associated with better cardiovascular health. Guasch-Ferre notes yet another advantage: an emphasis on the cultural and social aspects of eating. “Meals are often enjoyed with extended family and friends, which fosters a sense of community that may boost quality of life in younger and older people alike,” she says.

Image: © Carlo A/Getty Images