Nordic diet lowers cholesterol and blood sugar levels — even if you don’t lose weight

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Better health and weight loss typically go hand-in-hand, but a new study finds one diet can help people live healthier even if they never lose a single pound! Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have found that sticking to a “Nordic diet” lowers cholesterol and blood sugar levels — even if you eat more of those particular foods.

A healthy Nordic diet typically includes berries, vegetables, fish, whole grains, dairy products, and rapeseed oil. Previous studies have found that this diet is extremely nutritious and sustainable — contributing to the general good health of many Scandinavians across Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.

Study authors say the diet can help people maintain a healthy weight, reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Until now, studies have linked these benefits to Nordic dieters losing weight. However, the new study discovered that people switching to a Nordic diet for six months didn’t have to actually shed weight to enjoy better cholesterol levels and blood sugar control.

“It’s surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play,” explains researcher Lars Ove Dragsted from Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports in a university release.

Better health in six months

The team, including researchers from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, analyzed the blood and urine of 200 people over the age of 50. Each participant had an elevated body mass index (BMI) and were at high risk of developing diabetes and heart disease at the start of the experiment. Researchers divided these volunteers into two groups, one switching to the Nordic diet for six months and one sticking to their normal diet.

“The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, 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. We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health,” Dragsted reports.

It’s all about the fat we eat

So, if weight loss isn’t the key to the Nordic diet, what is? Researchers believe the makeup of the fats in these foods play a major role in what makes them healthier for human consumption.

“By analyzing the blood of participants, we could see that those who benefited most from the dietary change had different fat-soluble substances than the control group. These are substances that appear to be linked to unsaturated fatty acids from oils in the Nordic diet. This is a sign that Nordic dietary fats probably play the most significant role for the health effects seen here, which I hadn’t expected,” Dragsted explains.

The fat in the Nordic diet primarily comes from the fish, flaxseeds, sunflower, and rapeseed. The team believes this provides eaters with a beneficial mix of healthy fats — unlike those in red and processed meats. However, they’re still working on figuring out how these fats directly contribute to lowering blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

“We can only speculate as to why a change in fat composition benefits our health so greatly. However, we can confirm that the absence of highly processed food and less saturated fats from animals, have a very positive effect on us. So, 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,” Dragsted concludes.

The study is published in the journal Clinical Nutrition.

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