Joanna Foley, RD
Plenty of buzzwords have emerged in the health industry over the years, and the term “functional nutrition” has definitely become one of them. While the media tends to promote things like fad diets, “superfoods,” and other health products that promise quick fixes, functional nutrition takes a more holistic and sustainable approach to managing your health.
Read on to learn about what exactly functional nutrition is, what makes it different from the modern medicine approach, and get some ideas of how you can start implementing a functional approach to your diet to help optimize your health today.
You may have heard the phrase “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” coined by the ancient physician Hippocrates many centuries ago. This phrase now makes up the core of what functional nutrition stands for: that food is a fundamental component of health and can cause many physical and mental problems.
This principle gives you the power to use your diet as a natural form of medicine to restore balance in the body and help treat and prevent illness.
Most physicians in America practice modern medicine, also referred to as Western medicine. This style of healthcare tends to take an isolated, singular approach to managing health and treating disease. For example, when you have a headache, you might take a painkiller to help it go away. Similarly, if you’re struggling with mental health concerns, you might see a psychiatrist or counselor to provide therapy or medication to help you feel better.
While neither of these interventions is wrong, they often fail to address the root issue of why these ailments are happening in the first place. Instead, the focus becomes on suppressing the symptoms with medication, leaving the root cause often unaddressed and allowing it to carry on.
On the contrary, functional nutrition looks at symptoms as clues to help understand bigger issues that may be going on in your body. It takes a holistic approach to managing health and views the whole body as a set of interconnected parts that can each impact the other.
For example, functional nutritionists believe the gut is just as important to evaluate when it comes to mental health as the brain, and that something like inflammation from an underlying food sensitivity could be the cause of an ailment such as joint pain.
Because the human body is so complex and individualized, functional nutrition is never a “one-size-fits-all” approach to healthcare. Instead, it’s a highly customizable approach that considers all aspects of your unique body when treating or preventing disease.
A functional nutrition practitioner would assess all areas of your health and lifestyle, including diet, current medical conditions, medication use, physical activity regimens, and more when putting together a plan of action for managing your health.
While the term functional nutrition is often used interchangeably with functional medicine, they aren’t exactly the same. Functional nutrition is just one component of functional medicine, with functional medicine also involving other holistic practices like acupuncture, chiropractic care, and massage therapy.
In addition to food, functional medicine practices might also assess factors like stress, age, exposure to toxins, genetics, and lab work when coming up with a treatment plan.
There is no single diet or meal plan that makes up a functional nutrition eating style. Instead, functional nutrition involves including a variety of whole, minimally processed foods in your diet that will serve not only as fuel for your body but also as a tool to help treat or prevent illness.
Here are five main principles to focus on when following a functional nutrition style of eating:
Similar to how your car needs the right type of gas to run, your body requires optimal nutrition to function correctly. Many foods on the market today are highly processed and far from their natural state, which means they provide fewer nutrients than they should.
Eating in a functional nutrition style involves focusing on the most nutrient-dense foods, which are those that are as close to their natural state as possible. This means limiting the amount of packaged, processed, and convenience foods you consume.
Toxins are a leading cause of disease. Eating a whole-foods diet as outlined above supplies your body with the nutrients it needs to support proper detoxification in your body to help rid itself of illness. Antioxidants found in foods like colorful produce, green tea, beans, nuts, and seeds support the body’s ability to fight off free radicals and other toxins that you may become exposed to.
In addition, eating a high-fiber diet rich in probiotics helps support proper detoxification by promoting regular bowel movements, which is the primary way the body gets rid of toxins. High-fiber and probiotic foods include things like fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, whole grains, and fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut.
While buying organic is not required, doing so will help reduce your exposure to pesticides, another source of toxins.
Hippocrates is also known for saying that “all disease begins in the gut,” which scientists have found to be truer than ever. Research has linked an imbalance in gut bacteria to many conditions, ranging from physical to mental and everything in between.*
In addition, nearly 80% of immune cells are located in the gut, making gut health a key component of well-being.* Tending to gut health from a functional nutrition perspective means frequently eating foods rich in fiber and probiotics (examples provided above), which help nourish the gut lining and keep your microbiome healthy.
Inflammation can be both a symptom and cause of disease. Growing research shows that chronic inflammation is a root cause of many diseases. Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids from foods like fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds help reduce inflammation in the body and are therefore valuable tools in treating and preventing illness.
Other highly anti-inflammatory foods include the spice turmeric and other foods rich in antioxidants such as colorful produce.
While whole-food sources of nutrients are always the first and preferred method when treating or preventing disease, there are many instances where taking supplements may be indicated. Supplements can not only help fill in any nutrient gaps in your diet, but can also provide targeted nutrients that can help treat specific conditions.
Determining which supplements to take will depend on the health concerns you’re intending to manage and should be done using the guidance of a trained healthcare practitioner. It’s also important to keep in mind that because supplements are not closely regulated by the FDA, selecting trusted, high-quality brands is of utmost importance.
Eating in a functional nutrition style is intended to be an ongoing process, and not a short-term “quick fix.” Working with a healthcare practitioner trained in functional nutrition is the best way to come up with an eating plan that is most beneficial for you by taking factors like your health history, lifestyle choices, and current diet into consideration.
Functional nutrition differs from Western medicine by seeking to address the root cause, and not just the symptoms, of disease. It takes a natural, whole-body approach to health and uses food as medicine for treating and preventing health concerns. Eating in a functional nutrition style involves choosing wholesome, minimally processed foods that supply a wide variety of therapeutic nutrients to help nourish and heal the body to keep it functioning at its best.