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Chef and obesity researcher present New Nordic Diet

Claus Meyer, the founder and co-owner of Restaurant magazine’s number one-rated restaurant in the world, and Arne Astrup, a leading obesity researcher from the University of Copenhagen, sat down with a group in Tresidder on Tuesday to talk about the New Nordic Diet as a way to promote healthy eating.

The talk, entitled “Eat Right Now,” was part of a two-day conference, “Future of Health Innovation,” on health innovation in Denmark and the United States.

Arne Astrup discusses the New Nordic Diet at Tuesday's conference (LUIS AGUILAR/The Stanford Daily).

Meyer and Astrup spoke on how they are attempting to address the problem of obesity in Europe through their new approach to food, which they call the New Nordic Diet. The diet involves using local food in home-cooked meals that bring people together to enjoy healthful eating. In Denmark, that meant embracing traditional Arctic cuisine.

The diet is the cornerstone of Meyer’s restaurant, Noma, run by head chef Rene Redzepi. In its 2010 contest, Restaurant magazine voted Noma the best restaurant in the world. The menu features local Nordic food and brings out traditional flavors as part of a healthful cuisine.

“We wrote in our first menu that we wanted to create a brand new Nordic cuisine that embraced the Arctic world,” said Meyer. “Rene had trained with the best chefs in the world, and I had an idea of how to begin the New Nordic style.”

Meyer’s culinary work intersected with Astrup’s scholarship on problems of obesity. Astrup is former chairman of the International Association for the Study of Obesity and one of the most cited obesity scholars in the world. However, in many of his intervention studies, people who left the structured study environment would tend to regain the weight.

Drop-out patients “tend to regain and relapse,” Astrup said. He blamed that on the fact that losing weight was an act of deprivation and hardship for patients who would forgo delicious food.

Hence, Astrup began to collaborate with Meyer, using his New Nordic cuisine as a way to promote sustained healthy eating in his randomized trials. He wanted to test whether the New Nordic food would actually work, and so in one small study he randomized one group to a New Nordic cooking class and another to a control no-class measure. His observation of classes and final results made him a believer.

The subjects in the cooking class “were having a lot of fun,” he said. “For me at that time having a lot of fun was incompatible with decreasing your food intake. The drop-out rate was only 4 percent in the cooking group, but 25 percent in the control group…maybe this could prevent them [from] going to their old eating habits.”

Astrup is now conducting a multi-site school intervention to help combat childhood obesity in Denmark and around Europe.

Denmark “actually had a diet that was dominated by a very high fat diet,” Astrup said. “The prevalence of obesity among Danes went up dramatically.”

In the study, healthy meals modeled after the New Nordic Diet principles will be given to more than 3,000 Danish students daily for three months. The hope is that such changes will help reduce childhood obesity in Denmark, which affects many young Danes, including Meyer.

As a child, Meyer said, he was overweight, but then became so concerned with losing weight that he developed a “borderline eating disorder” until he moved to France as a young adult. There, he discovered a new way to look at eating.

“The way the food was shared among friends and family really touched me,” he said. “Returning to Denmark I had a calling — I wanted to change Danish food culture.”

The two hope that lessons from the New Nordic Diet can be used around the world to combat obesity. They also pointed out that healthy recipes can be simple — their book of recipes has no main dish that takes more than 30 minutes to prepare.

Meyer even had some advice to graduating Stanford students that will soon have to find food outside the convenience of dining halls.

“I would ask one person, ‘What do you like to eat?’ and he might say, ‘Roasted potatoes,’ and I would say, ‘Great, then maybe you should try to learn to roast your own potatoes,” Meyer said. “Then for the rest of your life you can make for yourself and your friends the thing you like most.’”

“I mean, what a pleasure,” he added. “So much food is so simple. …Start in one corner and then conquer one recipe at a time.”

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