Should I go Mediterranean or Nordic?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018. Author Dr Haran Sivapalan

Should I go Mediterranean or Nordic?

Sun, sand and… centenarians. Located 200 miles off the coast of mainland Italy, the island of Sardinia boasts fabulous weather, pristine beaches and an exceptionally high number of people who make it past 100 years old. Compared to the USA, the Ogliastra and Nuoro regions of central Sardinia are home to almost ten times as many centenarians per capita. 

As such, the area has been designated one of five ‘Blue Zones' – regions in the world distinguished by their remarkably high longevity. Analysis of these zones - a group which includes Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and the Greek island of Ikaria - suggests there's no single secret to a long and vibrant life. Genetics, an active lifestyle, a strong family network and even religiosity all play a role. For residents of Sardinia, however, there's another life-prolonging factor to consider: diet.

Also popular in Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Croatia and Morocco, the Mediterranean diet has long been associated with myriad health benefits. People eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains, legumes and olive oil, but low in red meat and high-fat dairy products, tend to live longer, have slimmer waistlines and are at reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes and certain cancers.

If cutting your risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes is your principal aim,  the American Heart Association believes the Mediterranean diet is a superior alternative to low-fat diets. The PREDIMED study, an 8 year-long clinical trial based in Spain, for example, found that a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 49% greater reduction in risk of stroke and better improvements in control of blood sugar levels.

Nordic Diet

Of course, Sardinians are not the only people with healthy dinner plates. Swapping the warmth of the Med for the cooler waters of the Baltic and North Seas, you'll find a similarly varied and nutritious diet – The Nordic Diet. Like its Mediterranean counterpart, the Nordic diet is heavily plant-based, with plenty of fruits and berries, vegetables (especially cabbage and root vegetables) and whole-grain cereals. Fish also features on the menu, particularly fatty varieties such as herring, mackerel, and salmon.  The Nordic diet is also differentiated by its use of canola (rapeseed) oil, instead of the Meditteranean's famous olive oil.

Unsurprisingly, given the similarities between the two diets, the Nordic diet also has proven health benefits. On this note, the NORDIET trial showed that people with high blood cholesterol levels who ate ‘like a Viking' had improved blood cholesterol and lipid profiles, better insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure.

Which diet is better?

There isn't a "bad" choice here.

Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reviewed interventions across Europe based on either Mediterranean or Nordic diets. Both diets led to favorable effects on blood triglyceride levels, obesity rates, and risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  

One factor that unites both diets, in addition to being low in processed foods, saturated fat, and sugar, is their high content of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).
MUFAs are considered beneficial for cardiovascular health as they  help reduce levels of ‘bad' LDL cholesterol in the blood, lower blood pressure, and aid weight loss. This is particularly true when MUFAs are consumed in place of saturated fats.

So, whether its Mediterranean style olive oil, Nordic style canola oil, or other high-MUFA oils such as safflower or peanut, try to substitute these for butter and animal lard.

Are the Mediterranean and Nordic diets suitable for me?

As part of a healthy lifestyle, most people stand to benefit from a Mediterranean or Nordic style diet. Depending on your genes, however, you may even get enhanced benefits from adopting these diets. This is a prime example of what's called a ‘gene-diet interaction.' An example of this is PPARG, which is a gene that encodes a protein receptor to regulate fat metabolism, insulin function, and fat deposition. 

If you're one of the 13% of people who carry one or two copies of the G allele of the PPARG gene, research suggests you are more likely to put on weight, carry excessive amounts of fat around the abdomen, and be at higher risk of diabetes.

If such G allele carriers adhere to a Mediterranean-style diet, they appear to be protected against an expanding waistline and have better insulin sensitivity and blood lipid levels.

Why is this the case? It's not completely clear, but the answer may lie in the high MUFA content of Mediterranean (and Nordic) diets. MUFAs may bind to and activate the PPARG protein, thereby favorably altering fat and carbohydrate metabolism.

Another important gene-diet interaction involves the MTFHR gene which plays a role in folate (Vitamin B9) metabolism and helps to control levels of homocysteine, a molecule in the bloodstream linked to poor cardiovascular health. As the ATTICA study suggests, depending on which version of the MTFHR gene a person carries, they may experience greater reductions in homocysteine levels in response to a Mediterranean or Nordic style diet.

So, just as your genes undoubtedly influence whether or not you're likely to live until 100, they also affect your response to foods.

I hope you enjoyed this article.  Please read my other blogs:    

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The Human Genome Project at 15: What have we learned?

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