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What is Functional Nutrition?

Beyond basic fuel, how does food help generate health each day? You’ve perhaps heard of functional medicine, the medical care approach that takes a “systems” view of health by focusing on the origins of dysfunction in the body and the interactions among genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Functional nutrition fits within this framework to examine how food “functions” within our bodies to both provide nourishment but also to influence the body’s health (or disease) itself. Food is one of the most fundamental and potent inputs we give our bodies every day--a clear and impactful message to our biochemistry. It’s one of several powerful links between our internal and external environments. The insight itself is ancient. More than two thousand years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates offered the famous quote, “Let medicine be thy food and thy food be thy medicine.” Today it’s a timeless rallying cry for advocates of real food nutrition. What should this mean for you?

When it comes to health care, too often we put time, energy and money into masking symptoms rather than treating their root cause. We’ll never envision - let alone approach - optimal health and wellbeing by this route. When we get to the underlying causes of our physical dysfunction (e.g. insulin resistance, high blood pressure, inflammatory conditions), we suddenly gain a panoramic view of what feeds (sometimes literally speaking) our dysfunction and what, in turn, can nourish or stimulate it toward optimum functioning. 

Functional nutrition at its best both examines the balance of our personal dietary landscape to see how well we’re nourishing our bodies’ needs and targets specific foods that may have particularly potent impact to address the subtle and not-so-subtle dysfunctions that we harbor. (And, yes, lab testing is a great way to survey these and catch them while they can be “treated” by the easiest and most successful means possible, which can include nutritional therapy.) For instance, if you have an inflammatory condition or your blood markers show higher than normal inflammatory levels, you’ll not only want to be sure to avoid inflammation-promoting foods but also take advantage of the anti-inflammatory potency of certain foods (e.g. turmeric, omega-3s found in fatty fish and quality omega supplements, cruciferous vegetables, berries, etc.). Functional nutrition emphasizes that your nutrition should work for you and that specific choices can function for your personal, individualized benefit.

That said, it’s important to differentiate functional food benefits from functional food marketing claims. The food industry’s attempts to capitalize on this concept too often promote processed, “enriched” food products with a small amount of the beneficial food--when buying the original “whole” food itself would yield many times the benefit with none of the added sugar or processed food additives. Take blueberries for example. A carton of fresh blueberries may not have a label boasting high antioxidant content, ample fiber, vitamin C, anti-inflammatory compounds, etc., but they're all there in whole food glory. Head over to the yogurt aisle or look at some toaster waffles or packaged cereal, and you might find big and bold claims playing up the healthy benefit of some minuscule portion of blueberries in their product. The same would be true of flaxseeds, and so on. The packaged products, adorned with their eye-catching labels and health claim marketing rights (FDA granted) aren’t the real McCoy. It’s a matter of dose and context, and common sense should tell us which is the real functional food choice and worth the money.

Let’s explore what Functional Nutrition should help us achieve:

Functional Nutrition should enhance your nutritional status, improve energy, satiety, and ability to heal from injury or illness.

There are a multitude of plans, programs, ideologies, and dogmas pertaining to the most optimal way of eating, but many times the message gets delivered without consideration that any plan must be individualized for long-lasting adherence, flexibility, and progress. Nutritional strategies can only enhance function if they aim to increase the nutrient quality of the food choices over time in accordance with our personal readiness and ability to improve our diet. Our individual strategies must also satisfy our appetite by making our hunger and cravings easier to manage. When our choices begin to include fresh, fibrous, and minimally processed foods, our dietary patterns start to work in our favor in many respects--especially when compared to standard diets of highly-processed, nutrient-poor foods. From there, appropriate individualized recommendations can help us incorporate additional targeted/therapeutic food choices. 

Functional Nutrition should foster resilience in spite of many challenges we encounter as we age and accumulate stresses (i.e. physical and mental decline, sleep deprivation, various forms of emotional distress).

Age-related functional decline is an inevitable part of the human lifecycle. However, in the last few generations we’ve witnessed some of the largest increases in average population life expectancy along with the quickest increases in debilitating chronic disease ever seen--simultaneously. For individuals to fulfill their quests to live a ‘better-than-average’ life, they must remain more resilient than ever in the face of the multiple stressors modern life presents. What we know as ‘disease’ could actually be explained as multi-factorial dysfunction--a deviation from normal biology--related to our dysfunctional nutrition patterns. We’ve literally become more fragile to the point where it’s normal to need symptom management before mid-life. Quality nutrition can help us prevent these conditions, and Functional Nutrition guidance/therapy can help us manage them or dial them back if we’re already affected. 

Perhaps most powerful, understanding Functional Nutrition can help us realign our relationship with food. When we consider food as medicine, our entire paradigm on eating can shift. We can better appreciate the impact of our daily choices. Likewise, we can examine the backdrop of those choices with a different perspective--why and how we make the choices we do each day. This broadens the scope to real life application--how Functional Nutrition can fit within our lifestyle functionality. 

Thanks for reading, everyone. Share your thoughts and questions about Functional Nutrition and what it could mean for your journey.

Written by Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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