A study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) last week revealed that the Nordic Prudent Dietary Pattern (NPDP), which is high in non-root vegetables, fish, poultry and fruit, was found to reduce cognitive decline and this reduction is improved when people stay mentally, physically and socially active.
The diet is rich in omega 3s, which improve memory and is good for the heart. Scientists now believe a healthy heart is an early indicator of brain health.
“In the past, studies have shown that the Nordic diet reduces obesity and improves heart health. Now there’s evidence that the Nordic diet can improve cognitive function too,” says public health nutritionist Dr Emma Derbyshire.
What’s more it’s easy to follow and allows for the odd glass of wine or cup of tea. “This is a diet that anyone can try. It follows lots of good principles such as eating more fish, berries and wholegrains,” Emma adds.
What is it?
The Nordic diet may help to stave off dementia by slowing the ageing process of the brain, which reduces memory loss and prevents the decline of thinking skills.
Unfortunately in the UK we tend to only consume two-thirds of our recommended daily allowance of fibre, meaning that we do lag behind other countries
It involves eating foods traditionally found in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, such as fish, vegetables, wholegrains, berries and dairy products and cutting down on processed meat, sugar and refined carbohydrates.
The Nordic diet involves cooking with rapeseed oil – instead of other fats, which can help slow down ageing in the body and the brain.
What’s the evidence?
A study by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute analysed the diets and cognitive skills of 2,223 people over the course of six years and identified foods which helped to slow down ageing in the brain.
The diet includes high levels of omega 3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve thinking and mood in several studies.
It also contains foods that are good for the heart and having a healthy heart is a good indicator of having a healthy brain later in life, according to research by the American Heart Association.
Eating berries can help slow down the brain’s ageing process
What you need to eat
Leafy green vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage and dark leafy greens such as spinach frequently appear on Scandinavian plates – and for good reason.
Green veg is packed with brain-friendly nutrients, including folate, aka vitamin B9.
This fundamental vitamin is essential for proper brain function and preserving memory – a study by Dutch researchers suggests that folate supplementation may improve memory skills in adults.
Oily fish such as salmon and tuna is essential for a healthy brain and can improve memory. But in the UK we only eat a third of the recommended amount each week.
Oily fish such as salmon and tuna is essential for a healthy brain
“The major difference between the Nordic countries and the UK is the amount of fish we consume. If we eat fish it tends to be of the white-in-breadcrumbs variety,” says Emma.
“But oily fish is essential for a healthy brain as it contains DHA, a type of omega 3 fatty acid which is in the grey matter of the brain and helps with things such as behaviour and attention.”
Try to eat oily fish for two meals a week. Sardines, anchovies, salmon, trout and mackerel are all good sources of omega 3.
For years we’ve been told that olive oil is one the healthiest oils to use but the Nordic diet recommends cooking with rapeseed oil instead.
Not only does it have half the saturated fat of olive oil, but as with oily fish, it contains lots of omega 3.
“Whereas the Mediterranean diet tends to use olive oil, the Nordic diet uses rapeseed oil,” says Emma.
“It’s regarded as a more stable oil to use when you’re cooking, which means it creates fewer free radicals.
“Over time, exposure to free radicals can damage cells which speeds up ageing in both the brain and body and can be harmful to health.”
The Nordic diet recommends cooking with rapeseed oil
If you want to use olive oil, stick to dressing salads with it and cook or roast with rapeseed oil instead.
Eating berries can help to improve your brain function.
In fact, unlike here in the UK, many Nordic countries specifically recommend eating berries as part of your five-a-day.
“Several studies have looked at berries and cognition. Eating berries has been found to reduce oxidative damage which helps to slow the ageing process of the brain,” says Emma.
Try a handful of mixed berries with natural yogurt as part of a healthy breakfast.
Having a high dairy diet can improve your working memory
It’s become fashionable to eschew dairy products in favour of alternatives such as nut milk and soy yogurt but eating dairy products in moderation can be good for your brain. Studies show that people who eat and drink less milk have poorer brain function and have an increased risk of developing vascular dementia.
And having a high-dairy diet can improve working memory too.
“People who follow a Nordic diet tend to eat dairy in moderation. It contains calcium and certain fat-soluble vitamins which are difficult to find in other foods,” says Emma.
Use semi-skimmed milk in your tea and coffee and with cereal.
We all know that eating wholegrains is good for our tummies but did you know they can help maintain a healthy heart too? And scientists now believe that having a healthy heart can be a good indicator of having a healthy brain later in life.
Look after your heart by eating lots of wholegrains such as oats, rye bread and brown rice.
“Wholegrains are great for you,” says Emma.
“They tend to be rich in fibre which plays a role in regulating cholesterol levels and preventing heart disease.
“Unfortunately in the UK we tend to only consume two-thirds of our recommended daily allowance of fibre, meaning that we do lag behind other countries.”
Try switching white bread for brown or rye bread and use brown rice instead of the white variety when you are cooking.
A tipple or two
Unlike a number of other diets the Nordic diet encourages the occasional tipple, especially red wine or beer.
The occasional glass of red wine can help prevent ageing of the brain and body
“Looking at the available studies, alcohol seems to follow a j-shaped curve. If you are teetotal you have a higher risk of high blood pressure and if you binge drink, you’re also likely to have high blood pressure,” says Emma.
“However, if you drink in moderation, you get the health benefits. A glass of red wine every now and again is best because of the polyphenols it contains which help prevent ageing in both the body and brain.”
Treat yourself to a glass of red wine with dinner from time to time but remember to try not to exceed the NHS guidelines of no more than 14 units of alcohol a week.
Dr Emma Derbyshire was speaking in conjunction with supplement brand Equazen (equazen.co.uk).