A new WHO report Health Evidence Network Synthesis Report analyzes which country policies and interventions have been inspired by the basic principles of the Mediterranean and Nordic diets. The report also examines whether there is evidence of effectiveness in reducing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Unhealthy diet is one of the leading cause of ill health globally and a major risk factor for NCDs such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes.
Studies have established the health-promoting properties of two European diets: the Mediterranean diet and the New Nordic diet – they have won acclaim for their role in helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. However, despite this knowledge, there is little specific guidance on how the health benefits of these diets can be translated into concrete policies and interventions to reinforce healthy eating behaviours and support people in making healthier food choices. Further, countries have rarely evaluated the impact of their efforts to promote the New Nordic and Mediterranean diet.
“Expanding our understanding of how to promote these healthy dietary patterns is thus an urgent priority,” says Joao Breda Head, WHO European Centre for control and prevention of NCDs. “The latest data continues to indicate that diets in both the Nordic and Mediterranean regions largely do not comply with recommendations. Worryingly, the diets of younger generations increasingly fail to adhere to the Mediterranean diet pattern and several Mediterranean countries are now the countries in Europe with the highest rates of children with obesity” he continues.
Steps towards a Nordic transformation
Following decades of eating meat-heavy and low vegetable diets, which were also high in salt and saturated fat, the Nordic countries have worked hard to reach a new awareness of how diet can contribute to health and support sustainable development. Initial studies of the health benefits of a new, healthy Nordic diet, based on locally available healthy foods, have demonstrated that it links to improvements in the risk factors for CVD and diabetes. Thus this re-conceived New Nordic diet has emerged as a cultural phenomenon similar to the Mediterranean diet, with Nordic countries jointly updating their food-based dietary guidelines and committing to cross-government work to promote the Nordic diet.
Both the Mediterranean and New Nordic diets focus on a high consumption of traditionally sourced staples, namely seasonal vegetables and fruits, whole grain, fish and poultry – with a notable point of difference where the Nordic diet replaces the Mediterranean olive oil with rapeseed oil. In the Mediterranean region the focus is on protecting and reinforcing the traditional healthy diet and the cultural and lifestyle aspects associated with it. The evidence for the protective effects of the Mediterranean is extremely strong, but consumption of energy-dense foods, high in saturated fats, free sugars and salt is on the rise in these countries.
Getting scientific evidence into the shopping carts and kitchens
Policy makers in the Nordic and Mediterranean countries have come to realize that although consumers may want to eat more fish, fruits and vegetables and whole-grain products, this would not happen on its own. To capitalize on the new awareness and reap the health benefits at population level, countries can collaborate and introduce changes such as nutrition labelling, healthy school lunches, and can also promote work across sectors that will bring opportunities for tourism, agriculture and sustainability – focusing on seasonal, local products. “Healthier diets have also be found to be better from a climate and environmental perspective, meaning there can be great win-wins in tackling negative dietary patterns,” says Mads Frederik Fischer-Møller, Nordic Food Policy Lab of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Launching the key findings
The new WHO report summarizes the best available evidence mapping what has been implemented in the European Region and what works. The report found that a total of 15 countries in the European Region currently recommend or implement policies based on the New Nordic and Mediterranean Diets, emphasising the health benefits and – in some cases – the cultural significance of these diets. In addition, the Nordic countries, in particular, have demonstrated collaborative policy-making through cross-country initiatives. However, the report found less evidence of policy development than expected and limited evidence that impact is routinely evaluated.
The report was launched on 7 May at WHO Regional Office for Europe at a one-day symposium jointly organized with the Nordic Food Policy Lab of the Nordic Council of Ministers where Member States from the Mediterranean and Nordic parts of Europe will exchange experience, challenges and solutions. Topics under discussion at the meeting included how governments can use the Mediterranean and New Nordic diets to influence food identity, consumer demand and to improve the nutritional quality of the food supply. In the long term, it is expected that such efforts can help shift diets in more healthy and sustainable directions. Given the focus of the meeting – on food culture and identity – the meeting also involved leading chefs who are often major food influencers and important allies. They contributed to the discussion around how the concepts of the New Nordic and Mediterranean diets can be (re)integrated into cooking – in all its forms – so that people understand what these diets look and taste like.
Click here for a link to the full WHO report.
Just how environmentally friendly are the Mediterranean and New Nordic diets?
Mediterranean and New Nordic diets are both characterised by the inclusion of mainly plant-based foods with some fish and limited amounts of meat. Plant-based diets have a lower impact on the environment.1
A 2017 study found that Mediterranean and New Nordic diets have similar greenhouse gas emissions, 23.6kg and 25.8 kg CO2 -eq/week respectively.2
A person consuming an average Danish diet emits 1.5x more greenhouse gases than someone consuming a New Nordic diet.3
A person consuming a high-meat(>100g/day) British diet emits over 2x more greenhouse gases than a someone consuming a Mediterranean diet.2,4
(1) Tilman & Clark. (2014) Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature.515, p. 518-522.
(2) Ulaszewska et al. (2017) Assessment of diet-related GHG emissions using the environmental hourglass approach for the Mediterranean and new Nordic diets. Science of the Total Environment. 574, p. 829-836.
(3) Saxe et al. (2013) The global warming potential of two healthy Nordic diets compared with the average Danish diet. Climatic change. 116(2), p. 249-262.
(4) Scarborough et al. (2014) Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change. 125(2), p. 179-192.