Iceland is one of the healthiest countries in the world — and the secret lies in its cuisine

Plates with healthy soups, omelets and salads
ByLeslie Hsu Oh

Iceland is known for traditional foods like fermented shark, sour ram’s testicles and cod tongues. But the Nordic country’s cuisine should be celebrated for its innovation — not only does it embrace a farm-to-table philosophy, but Iceland inhabitants are also committed to using sustainable energy to process food. Iceland has become a destination for food lovers as of late, and a healthy one at that.

Iceland earned the top spot in U.K. Channel 4’s World Best Diets documentary in 2014, due to its healthy diet of homemade, lightly processed and omega-3-rich foods. Plus, on a ranking of healthy countries by Bloomberg in March, Iceland placed second based on indicators of life expectancy, nutrition and causes of death.

An Icelandic diet consists of big breakfasts eaten at home instead of on-the-go, fresh seafood, and quality meat and dairy products. Government policy plays a large role, too: Iceland’s great strides in utilizing clean, renewable and sustainable energy also contributes to healthier, fresher and tastier food.

What makes Icelandic food so healthy

Grindavík, a fishing town near Keflavík International Airport, delivers fresh fish caught same-day to restaurants throughout Iceland and to restaurants around the world the next day.

Some of the most popular fish in Iceland are cod, herring, arctic char, salmon and bluefin tuna, all of which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Arctic char is a lighter, creamier-tasting version of salmon that has the same healthy fats as the pink-hued fish.

Lýsi, or cod liver oil, has a laundry list of health benefits and is another fish product frequently consumed by Icelandic people — even day care centers and preschools feed it to children.

Lamb, which appears frequently on menus in Iceland, is packed with iron and omega-3 fatty acids and helps lower blood pressure, prevent cardiovascular diseases and potentially prevent depression. Sheep and other animals, like wild horses, have the freedom to graze in extended daylight hours during Iceland summers. Sheep outnumber people nearly three to one, so be prepared to share the road if you drive around the country. Due to strict governmental regulations and geographic isolation, sheep are never crossbred or exposed to diseases from other countries.

Another bonus: Grass-fed cows in Iceland can produce milk high in beta-carotene. When it comes to dairy in general, visitors can expect quality. Butter will be a deep yellow due to high fat content, and skyr — a thick, creamy dairy product similar to yogurt — also contributes to healthy Icelandic diets. Because it’s low in fat and high in protein and calcium, skyr has been studied for its ability to control weight, regulate blood sugar, and promote bone and heart health.

Where to get the best healthy and delicious Icelandic food

Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon

Try the “Dream Feast,” a five-course surprise menu crafted from fresh Icelandic ingredients. Head chef Sævar Karl Kristinsson serves cured lamb and lamb sausages made by a farmer who lives in Skaftafell National Park. The staff picks wild crowberries, arctic thyme and other ingredients that are used cleverly in their menu. Desserts like “Icelandic moss panna cotta with dandelion syrup, with blackberry and birch ice cream” or “traditional Icelandic skyr with blueberry cream, sorrel sorbet and arctic thyme crumble,” which has a sweet and tart taste plus creamy and crunchy textures. Set menus range from $69 to $94 (7290 to 9900 króna). Main courses range from $41 to $65 (4290 to 6890 króna).

Hotel Glymur

Iceland’s bountiful traditional breakfast is usually included in all lodging options at Hotel Glymur. “We bake our bread every morning for breakfast and a different bread for dinner. We offer three types of herring which we make here,” Ragna Ívars, Glymur’s hotel manager, said in an interview. Breakfast also includes a charcuterie and cheese board, pancakes, lamb pate, smoked and marinated salmon with homemade mustard dill sauce, homemade yogurt with blueberries and strawberries, and a massive bowl of fruit. Bed and breakfast from $284 (29,900 króna) for two.

Hotel Rangá

Chef Karl Jóhann Unnarsson serves salmon, straight from the river that winds its way past the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the dining room, and tomatoes from Fridheimar, a nearby thermal greenhouse. Unnarsson wants people who eat his food “to feel the flavor of the ingredient,” he said in an email. “I want my staff to understand that food comes from a local river or farmer and therefore should be prepared and cooked with care and passion. I tell them that it’s a privilege to have quality ingredients.”

If you’re feeling brave, try other seafood high in omega-3, such as Unnarsson’s smoked puffin with spiced cream cheese, beetroot gel and apples, or his version of fermented shark. Both are traditionally served raw and chewy. The breakfast buffet also includes lýsi, which Unnarsson drinks every morning. Main courses range from $41 to $100 (4400 to 10,500 króna).

Icelandic Fish & Chips

This Reykjavík-based restaurant serves nine kinds of fish; its new downtown Manhattan location has fish flown in daily from Iceland. Try the entrees with “skyronnaise,” a lighter, skyr-based dipping sauce. Main courses are priced at $24.

Lava Restaurant

Dine with a view of the Blue Lagoon while enjoying Icelandic seafood, lamb and locally grown fresh vegetables. “We make everything from scratch in our kitchen. This includes baking our own bread and pastries daily,” chef Ingi Þórarinn Friðriksson said in an email. “The Icelandic lamb is free grazed in the wilderness from late spring until fall. It eats grass, moss, berries and herbs that give the meat a unique, almost gamey taste.” The scallops are handpicked by a local diver and the fish delivered fresh every day from Grindavík. All main courses are priced at $56 (5900 króna).

Restaurant Fljótt og Gott

This restaurant, one of the oldest in Reykjavík, serves svið — smoked sheep’s head — which can be ordered off a photo menu at a drive-through for only $15 (1650 króna). Located at a bus terminal, the prices are a lot more reasonable, ranging from $5 to $18 (595 to 1890 króna).

If food prices in Iceland seem steep, it’s because diners are paying for the high costs of importing ingredients and equipment to the Nordic island. Plus, there are hefty taxes to consider — Iceland has the highest tax on alcohol in Europe.