Starting babies on the ‘Nordic Diet’ could prevent childhood obesity, study says

COPENHAGEN, Demark — Starting babies on the “Nordic Diet” may hold the key to beating childhood obesity, researchers say. An international team found that this diet is rich in low-protein foods like berries, fish, root vegetables, and whole grains, and can instill healthier eating habits.

Infants four to six months-old consumed small portions of these foods, as well as breast or formula milk. A year later, they were eating almost double the number of vegetables than those fed conventional baby foods.

Lead author Dr. Ulrica Johansson, a pediatrician at the University of Umeå, says 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,” Johansson says in a media release.

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

1 in 5 children are overweight

The World Health Organization believes countries could lower rates of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease by embracing a Nordic-style diet. According to the CDC, over 40 percent of U.S. adults classify as obese. One in five children also fall into that range.

Dr. Johansson and colleagues followed 250 babies until the age of 18 months. The trial found marked differences in dietary habits in the two groups. Parents of those on the Nordic diet received homemade recipes, protein-reduced baby food products, and support via social media.

These infants consumed 42 to 45 percent more fruit and vegetables between 12 and 18 months of age, compared to those eating 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 percent between months 12 and 18.

Babies on the Nordic diet had an average protein intake 17 to 29 percent lower than those on the conventional diet by the end of the study. 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 adds there did not appear to be any negative effects from having a lower protein intake.

“A Nordic diet reduced in protein is safe, feasible and may contribute to sustainable and healthy eating during infancy and early childhood,” the researcher says.

Learning early to eat healthier

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 earlier in life. The Nordic diet has a higher intake of regionally and seasonally produced fruit, berries, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, and legumes. It’s also abundant in whole grains, vegetable fats and oils, fish, and eggs — and lacks in meat, dairy foods, sweets, and desserts.

Typical fruits include the lingonberry, buckthorn berry, cranberry, raspberry, and blueberry. Nordic vegetables are rich in fiber – such as turnip, beets, swede, root celery, carrots, parsnip, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.

“The authors have shown a significant effect of the diet in 12 and 18 months of age of the children. The Nordic diet group consumed more fruit and vegetables and less protein than the control group. The Nordic diet was well tolerated and did not negatively affect growth of the child or breastfeeding duration. Importantly, this research demonstrates that this diet is safe, feasible and exposes infants to a variety of flavors which may influence long-lasting food preferences,” concludes Professor Jiri Bronsky of ESPGHAN (European Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition).

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 team presented their findings at the 54th Annual ESPGHAN Meeting.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.