Eat yourself thin on the New Nordic Diet

Scientists are busy testing the health effects of Noma’s touted cuisine; the early results are turning heads

If you find it hard to believe that Denmark, the home of hotdog wagons, rémoulade, and Danish pastries could have a slimming national cuisine, it’s worth remembering that it’s also the home of whole-grain rye bread, root vegetables, fresh fish and seaweed.

While the former foods still make up a large part of the average Dane’s diet, a new way of eating focuses on the latter, plus ingredients like game meats, cabbage, wild berries, and the occasional dandelion or two.

What has been dubbed ‘New Nordic cuisine’ has taken hold in Denmark and beyond, in large part due to the influence of the renowned chef Claus Meyer. Besides co-founding the award-winning Copenhagen restaurant Noma (its name is a contraction of the Danish words for ‘Nordic food’), Meyer has spent the last decade encouraging people to eat seasonal, local foods, and even to forage for their salads.

He recently paired up with researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) to develop menus for a series of scientific studies on the health effects of New Nordic-style eating.

Preliminary results from one of those studies are certain to grab the attention of nutrition experts and dieters around the world.

As part of a 26-week study, LIFE researchers fed 181 overweight adults one of two different diets: an ‘average Danish diet’, comprised of the dishes currently most eaten in Denmark, including many imported foods, or the New Nordic Diet, with Meyer-designed meals made of local and seasonal whole foods. All of the participants were encouraged to eat until they were fully satisfied, paying some attention to portion size, but never counting calories.

Halfway into the study, the 113 participants on the New Nordic Diet had lost an average of 3.1 kgs each, whilst the 68 participants eating the average Danish diet had lost just 1.6 kgs. LIFE associate professor Thomas Meinert Larsen, who leads the study, presented the preliminary results at the European Nutrition Conference in Madrid last month. The study’s final results are expected in spring 2012.

Letting participants eat until they were satisfied allowed researchers to compare the “satiating effects” of the two diets, Larsen said.

And while Noma – with its months’ long waiting list and 2,500 kroner prix fixe – may represent the paragon of New Nordic cuisine, Larsen emphasised that making your own food at home is an essential aspect of the New Nordic Diet.

“When you cook the foods yourself, you know exactly what the ingredients are, you know where they come from, if they are healthy, and also if they were prepared in a healthy way.”

Likewise, learning to cook New Nordic-style meals is part of another large, ongoing LIFE study involving school children. As part of its New Nordic school food study, third and fourth graders from nine primary schools are learning to prepare their own exotic-sounding New Nordic meals like wild boar patties with mashed peas and root vegetables, or Jerusalem artichoke soup with hazelnuts and chervil.

Whilst the children eat, cook and learn about New Nordic foods over the course of the 2011-2012 school year, researchers are busy measuring changes to everything from their fat-to-muscle ratios and blood pressure, to sleeping patterns, concentration levels, and learning abilities.

Professor Kim Fleischer Michaelsen, who heads LIFE’s New Nordic school food study, said that even though New Nordic cuisine may include unusual ingredients like wild garlic and dandelions it’s neither exclusive nor elite.

“It’s very important to us to point out that the New Nordic Diet is different from Noma. Of course, the principle of using natural, local foods is the same. But the New Nordic Diet isn’t about being sophisticated,” Michaelsen said. “It’s everyday food.”

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