Research Shows a Lower Protein Diet Could Be the Key to Healthier Eating Habits


Healthy Food Selection

By the time they were 18 months old, infants who began receiving taster portions of the new Nordic diet were eating 46% more vegetables than those who were fed a conventional diet.

Introducing infants and toddlers to a lower-protein Nordic-style diet that places an emphasis on plant-based foods could allow them to obtain healthy eating habits

New research recently presented at the 54th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) suggests that the key to healthier eating habits may be to introduce babies and toddlers to a lower protein Nordic-style diet with a greater focus on plant-based foods.

By the time they were 18 months old, infants who began receiving taster portions of the new Nordic diet, which includes fruit, berries, roots, and vegetables, along with breast or formula milk, were eating nearly twice as many vegetables (a 46 percent increase) as those who were fed a conventional diet.

As part of the OTIS experiment, researchers from the University of Umeå in Sweden, the Stockholm County Council Centre for Epidemiology, and the University of California in the United States studied two groups of infants from 4-6 months to 18 months. 250 infants in total participated, and 82% of them completed the study.

Nordic Diet Benefits Graphic

A graphic explaining the benefits of a Nordic-style diet. Credit: The European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN)

The toddlers in the 2 groups had quite different eating patterns, according to the study. Those who followed the new Nordic diet, who received Nordic home-made baby food recipes, protein-reduced baby food products, and social media support from other parents, ate 42–45% more fruit and vegetables at 12–18 months of age than those who followed the traditional diet currently advised by the Swedish Food Agency.

Although in the traditional diet group, fruit consumption remained constant, but between 12 and 18 months, infants receiving the traditional diet consumed 36% fewer vegetables.

Babies on the Nordic diet had an average protein intake 17-29% lower than those on the conventional diet at 12-18 months of age. This was still within recommended protein intake levels and the overall calorie count between the two groups was the same. The protein reduction in the Nordic diet group was replaced by more carbohydrates from vegetables, not more cereals, together with some extra fat from rapeseed oil.

Lead researcher Dr. Ulrica Johansson, a Medicine Doctor in pediatrics and registered dietitian at the University of Umeå, Sweden, said there did not appear to be any negative effects from having a lower protein intake.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Johansson says: “A Nordic diet with reduced protein introduced to infants naive to this model of eating, increased the intake of fruit, berries, vegetables, and roots, establishing a preferable eating pattern lasting over a 12-month period.”

“There were no negative effects on breastfeeding duration, iron status or growth.”

“A Nordic diet reduced in protein is safe, feasible, and may contribute to sustainable and healthy eating during infancy and early childhood,” she added.

The novel research could pave the way to broadening the taste spectrum in infants and potentially provide an effective strategy for instilling healthier eating habits early in life.

The Nordic diet has a higher intake of regionally and seasonally produced fruit, berries, vegetables, herbs, mushrooms, tubers, and legumes, as well as whole grains, vegetable fats and oils, fish and eggs, and a lower intake of sweets, desserts and dairy, meat, and meat products.

Typical Nordic fruits include lingonberry, buckthorn berry, cranberry, raspberry, and blueberry, as well as fiber-rich vegetables such as turnip, beets, swede, root celery, carrots, parsnip, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.

Chair of the ESPGHAN Nutrition Committee, Professor Jiri Bronsky, stated: “The authors have shown a significant effect of the diet in 12 and 18 months of age of the children. The Nordic diet group consumed more fruit and vegetables and less protein than the control group. The Nordic diet was well tolerated and did not negatively affect the growth of the child or breastfeeding duration. Importantly, this research demonstrates that this diet is safe, feasible and exposes infants to a variety of flavors which may influence long-lasting food preferences.”

Meeting: 54th Annual Meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN)