The variety and accessibility of food can sometimes be taken for granted today. But it wasn’t always this way. For instance, in times of hunting and gathering such as the Vikings, food choices were limited and availability sometimes scarce. Nevertheless, there may be some lessons in their diet that could help us to lead healthier lives.
As part of globalization, food has become a widely traded commodity across the world. It means that we can have access to all the fresh fruit, vegetables and other produce we need, even if it’s out of season at home. However, the Vikings were at the mercy of their geography and climate when it came to food choices.
Indeed, food for the Nordics came from a combination of hunting, fishing and farming. Moreover, the word “Viking” was a verb with the same meaning as pillaging or plundering. But the proper noun carried an element of peace, reflecting instead on their farming and artisanal lifestyles, rather than its barbaric and uncivilized undertones.
In fact, the Viking lifestyle is one that seems to be gradually creeping back into vogue. You see, a disadvantage of globalization is the negative impact that the long distances that food travels have on the environment. Shipping food across the world creates higher carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change.
By reducing the distance between source and table then, carbon footprints can be heavily reduced. For instance, buying food locally from farmers’ markets is kinder to the environment than shipping it halfway around the world. However, as it happens, a diet inspired by the Vikings has hidden health benefits too.
Now, with so little officially recorded about the Vikings, how do we know so much about what they ate? Historians have traced the origins of the “Viking Age” all the way back to 793. With a fearsome reputation as formidable marauders, they spent 300 years pillaging the likes of Italy, France, Spain and Britain, as well as Constantinople (Istanbul today) and Kiev.
Experts believe that the Vikings descended from the hunter-gatherers who relocated to the likes of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their migration occurred around 4000 B.C. with the thawing of ice sheets. And it was from their ancestors that the marauders adopted certain survival skills, such as adapting the land for sustainability.
You see, Vikings were more adaptable than their reputations perhaps suggested. Their lifestyles were carefully planned around the changing seasons. The average Viking developed farming skills, keeping livestock as well as growing crops to feed the family. They also used trading methods, such as fishermen and blacksmiths exchanging their wares for food at markets.
This image of the Vikings stands somewhat in contrast to some historical representations of the people. According to the English, the Nordic people ate and drank excessive amounts and were voracious and greedy. In popular culture too, Vikings have been depicted as mead-swilling gluttons who feast on spit-roasted venison. But how does that measure up to reality?
Well, it’s fair to assume that vegetarianism wasn’t a practical option for Vikings. Indeed, pork was a regular staple on the dining table since hogs were easily reared and fast to grow to full size. However, when hunting season was over, preserved meats were a more common sustenance. Viking women developed preservation methods to keep meat fresh throughout harsh winters when food was scarce.
But to presume that Vikings just ate raw meat is a mistake. Sure, ovens and stoves were likely a long way off at that point in history. Nevertheless, a more typical method for cooking meat would be to fry or roast animals on an open flame. Their cookery tools were advancing too, with cauldrons fashioned from soapstone or iron pots crafted by blacksmiths.
Moreover, it’s believed that the Vikings may have cooked certain meats by boiling them. For instance, meat was often tossed in a pot along with vegetables and left to simmer for several days to make a stew called skause. Its hearty broth would then be served with beans, grains and even the edible inner bark of the birch tree.
While many may not be aware that it’s edible, birch bark is, in fact, incredibly versatile. Not only can it be milled into flour to make bread, but it can also be cut into strips to be boiled in soups and stews for a noodle-like ingredient. It can be eaten raw too, while the tree’s sap may be consumed straight from the tree or reduced over heat into a syrup.
Furthermore, tree bark wasn’t the only unusual food consumed by the Vikings. Horse was another animal bred not just for labor, but also the dinner table. And while their neighbors objected to the practice, with Christian lawmakers forbidding it, the Vikings weren’t put off, consuming the animal as readily as cow, chicken, sheep, goat, duck and ox.
While the Vikings mostly reared their own animals as a food source, they might have resorted to other methods in leaner times. As well as pillaging for superior farmland, the more skilled men sometimes turned to hunting. However, this was usually for sustenance, while a raid was considered a more sporting activity, and one that they would travel overseas for.
Because Vikings were a seafaring people, fish also made up a significant part of their diet. And because they had access to both fresh and sea waters, they found it in abundance. Herring was a particular favorite, not least because of its versatility. It could be smoked, pickled, salted, dried or preserved in whey.
Flatbread accompanied most Viking meals. Among the crops on their farms, the Nordics grew oats, barley and rye to bake their own bread. It was a handy accompaniment to their hearty stews, particularly when they used it to scoop up their food to eat it. They usually baked bread in skillets warmed over heated bark and stones.
Sourdough bread was also a staple in the Viking culinary repertoire. Old dough was often flavored with buttermilk and soured milk. However, the Nordics didn’t use grains for the sole purpose of baking bread. For instance, barley was chopped and dried before being added to oatmeal-style meals and mead.
However, the Viking diet consisted of more than just bread and meat. Milk, cereals and vegetables were just a few staples available to them, while those with a sweet tooth could feast on honey, fruit and berries. But with what little was historically documented about these people, how do we know what they ate?
You see, written accounts of Viking cuisine tend to postdate the era that they inhabited. The information available, then, might not be especially accurate. However, archaeologists have excavated sites that revealed lots of information about Viking kitchens. Plant remnants studied from fireplaces, waste layers, post holes and decomposed deposits have given strong clues to what they ate.
What was learned was that Vikings were not troubled by the high fat content of the foods they ate. In fact, it was a welcome commodity given their physical lifestyles and harsh winters. Nevertheless, it may seem strange that such a hearty way of eating became the inspiration for a healthy meal plan.
In 2004 forward-thinking chefs Claus Meyer and René Redzepi devised the New Nordic diet, based on the way Vikings ate. Their big concern was the amount of processed foods, refined grains, additives and intensively farmed meat and poultry that consumers ingest. So the chefs called on a group of peers to see what could be done to make diets healthier.
The chefs’ ideas resulted in what they called a Manifesto for the Nordic Kitchen. Their lofty vision was outlined as an intention to “express the purity, freshness, simplicity, and ethics we wish to associate with our region.” Furthermore, they wanted to “combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being.” But there was more to the diet that Vikings inspired.
The British press described the New Nordic diet as “regional, sustainable, seasonal and tasty.” Some even believed it to be the healthiest way of eating in the world. It’s certainly a regime that the Nordic Council of Ministers advocated in 2005. The concept was simple: consume more fruit and vegetables, favor fish over meat and forage for food where possible.
A Nordic diet menu for a week could include two vegetarian and two fish dishes, with three days comprising meat dinners. Every day can be filled with as many root vegetables, legumes, leafy greens, grains such as oats, barley, spelt and rye, nuts, berries and orchard fruits. Everything should be bought in season and produced locally.
Now the New Nordic diet might seem like just another fad. But other regional meal plans have shown to provide health benefits before. For instance, the Mediterranean diet’s focus on foods such as fruit and veg, nuts and legumes has been linked to decreased chances of developing illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Could the same be true for the Viking-influenced diet?
Scientists at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Life Sciences put the New Nordic diet to the test in 2009. Their study was designed to identify whether the eating plan offered any health benefits. Two groups were studied, one following a diet containing processed foods, sugar and refined grains, the other observing a more organic meal plan. The researchers noticed something surprising.
You see, the study wasn’t devised to record weight loss. Nevertheless, the group members following the New Nordic diet lost an average of seven pounds over a six-month period. Measurements around their hips, body fat and blood pressure also decreased, while members of the group eating normally showed no changes. In another study, similar reductions in blood pressure and fat were recorded in Danish schoolchildren who had been served New Nordic lunches.
In further studies, researchers also examined the New Nordic diet’s effect on cholesterol, which they noted had lowered. As they wrote in the Journal of Internal Medicine, scientists determined that subjects’ glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity had improved. A result of enhanced resistance to insulin was better blood lipids and inflammatory markers, reducing chances of cardiovascular disease.
The New Nordic diet also showed benefits comparative to similar eating plans. For instance, improvements in blood pressure levels were observed when weighed up against a typical meal plan followed in Denmark over a 26-week period. The study of centrally obese subjects observed that there was a consistent pattern of weight loss across study groups following the Nordic plan.
It is believed that the success of the New Nordic diet comes from its philosophy. Like with the Mediterranean diet, meals are based on foods more readily available to its location. You see, the Mediterranean diet is inspired by cuisine local to Italy, Spain and Greece. Similarly, the Viking-inspired diet draws on foods available in Scandinavian countries.
However, while the Mediterranean diet contains foods such as pasta, white bread and polenta, the New Nordic diet omits any form of processed or refined food. The Nordics also favor canola oil over olive oil. You see, canola oil, made from rapeseed, is lower in saturated fat and contains more omega-3s, which are healthy for the heart.
Doctor Marc Hellerstein is a professor of human nutrition at Berkley’s University of California and professor of medicine at its San Francisco campus. He told fashion magazine Vogue in December 2014, “With natural whole grains, there’s only so much you can put in your stomach. Eat a salad, you’re starving an hour later. Rye will sit there.”
So then, whole grains will keep you fuller for longer. But Hellerstein found other benefits to the New Nordic diet. He continued, “Canola oil is shown to be great for your cardiovascular health. It thins your blood and has a high percentage of unsaturated fat, and high-protein diets tend to promote weight loss. It’s hard to argue with that.”
What’s more is that many fad diets achieve weight loss by eliminating entire food groups. And while they may be successful in the short term, returning to a normal eating plan may result in unwanted weight gain. The New Nordic diet offers a way of eating that can be followed in the long term without feeling like you’re missing out.
You see, the New Nordic diet isn’t about placing unhealthy restrictions on what you eat. And that’s why it’s so different from other meal plans designed to help with weight loss. Instead, like other ways of eating based around regionally available foods, the idea is to opt for more nourishing varieties of the foods you consume that are better for your health.
Vogue correspondent Kate Christensen wrote about her own experience of the New Nordic diet. She said, “It… made me more conscious of health, not just food. Not only was I drinking more water than usual, I… upped my exercise to two Pilates classes a week, frequent five-mile runs, and the occasional hard-core cardio-workout video. I was sleeping better and enjoying a sense of satiety without too many cravings.”
Nevertheless, the science behind dieting is simple, according to Danish chef Trine Hahnemann. She told Vogue, “The only way to lose weight is by reducing portions. We have no idea anymore what a portion looks like. When I was a kid, it was three meatballs, a potato and some steamed vegetables on your plate. That’s what everyone considered dinner. You didn’t ask for seconds. And we were all thin.”
According to the New Nordic diet then, overall health can be improved simply by eating well. Think about where foods come from, and opt for those locally grown or foraged without additives and harmful chemicals. Eat whole foods, and consume more fruit and vegetables. Choose fish over meat, and eat seasonal produce. Using ingredients with less packaging, make more meals at home.
But, equally as important, savor what you eat. As Christensen described, “Reminded of what a diet really is, I began eating more slowly, being more conscious of when I was full. I started to enjoy my buckwheat bread with goat cheese and pureed butternut-squash soup as a response to real hunger.” And by following the New Nordic diet’s rules responsibly, not even a second glass of wine is out of the question.