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What's Functional Nutrition & Why's It Important?

In the past few years, functional nutrition has been a very popular topic in the research world as well as wellness communities. We're seeing a rise in functional diet protocols and food and supplement products boasting beneficial ingredients. Plus, every day we learn more about the science behind why certain foods are better for us than others.

Functional nutrition isn't just about being healthy when you feel like it. Or simply about eating more fruits and vegetables. It’s about making sure your body gets the nutrients it needs to function at its best. In short, functional nutrition is so important because it helps make our bodies work for us!

So, grab a fork and knife; don your bib. We’re going to carve into functional nutrition….

What is Functional Wellness?

Before digging into functional nutrition, though, let's back up a step so you can get some context. After all, functional nutrition is part of the functional wellness hierarchy.

Functional wellness is a movement that emphasizes addressing the root causes of your conditions, not just the symptoms. Its goal is to help you identify and understand what impacts your personal health outcomes so that you can improve your wellness and day-to-day life.

In order to create a robust sense of well-being and upgrade an individual's quality of life, functional wellness balances physical, mental, and emotional welfare. Practitioners of functional wellness work to build strong minds and bodies!

And Functional Medicine Is...?

Functional medicine — a practice that aims to address all of an individual's healthcare needs instead of just one condition at a time — is also part of the functional wellness framework. This approach to medicine looks at your body, environment, and lifestyle as a whole system.

From this perspective, functional medicine doctors strive to discern and treat the origins of health issues rather than only pacifying and managing their symptoms. Functional medicine is often used by functional wellness practitioners.

Why Functional Wellness

In recent years, the concept of "wellness" has been evolving from a passive idea to something more active. This modern and exciting field of study and practice concentrates on dynamic participation in achieving positive health results. Active elements (like nutrition, exercise, and mental relaxation) are prioritized over more passive methods (like body detoxing or spa treatments).

Functional wellness is a good fit for this paradigm shift precisely because it focuses on bringing attention to an individual's overall health and well-being. (Remember those 8 Dimensions of Wellness?) It also acknowledges that you have agency and should be engaged in your own healthcare.

What is Functional Nutrition?

Functional nutrition is a practice that rallies around the healing power of food. This approach holds the idea that the foods and beverages you consume can be a healthy way to fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly (optimally even).

It is not just about eating enough fruits and veg or skipping the desserts and junk food, but understanding your body type and what it needs. We all have different needs when it comes to nutrition, so it's critical to understand your system to get the right amount and mix of nutrients.

You can embrace the principles of functional nutrition any time, anywhere, and at any age.

Functional Foods

All this begs the question: What are functional foods? As in "What foods are functional?" and "What makes these foods functional?" Good questions!

Functional foods are defined as ones that are rich in phytonutrients, antioxidants, or specific compounds that have health benefits beyond basic nutrition. They also contain compounds that can prevent or treat disease, help prevent or repair damage to the body, and so on.

Functional foods may be in the form of a food item itself, an ingredient in a food, or a dietary supplement. Oftentimes, food items are fortified with vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other nutrients to turn them into functional foods or add an extra functional boost to their nutritional profile.

Benefits of Functional Nutrition

There are many pluses to a functional nutrition plan. Of course, the benefits you might realize could differ from others because your body and biology are unique and how you implement functional nutrition will vary. That said, here's a handful of generalized potential reasons functional nutrition rocks:

  1. By eating a variety of healthy foods, your diet has a lot of nutritional value.

  2. You can get good-for-you nutrients you need without a ton of empty calories or harmful additives.

  3. It may boost your metabolism.

  4. It can help you to attain and maintain a healthy weight.

  5. It can help you to manage your blood sugar and insulin, which will help you to avoid insulin resistance.

  6. It can help you to avoid chronic inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

  7. It promotes good gut health by including probiotics in the diet.

  8. It can help you to avoid cravings, which can help you to avoid binge eating.

  9. You may notice you have more energy.

How To Adopt a Functional Nutrition Lifestyle

There are many options for food that are healthful and nutrient-dense. This means you've got plenty of entree points into functional nutrition.

Here are some easy ways you can start incorporating the functional nutrition approach into your diet:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet that incorporates adequate protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

  • Be sure to consume a variety of foods including a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.

  • Opt for whole foods.

  • Avoid consuming highly-processed foods, which are often full of excess salt, unhealthy fats, sugar, chemicals, etc.

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • Enjoy "treats" (caffeine, sugar, refined foods, alcohol, etc.) in moderation.

  • Eat appropriately-sized portions.

You can start out slowly and build as you go. Incorporating small, incremental nutritional changes can make it easier to adopt new habits. Over time, all the little tweaks really add up! (And, actually, many of the tiny adjustments you implement could translate into wellness wins fairly quickly.)

If you have any health conditions or take any medications, it’s advisable to have a chat with your doctor before hopping on the functional nutrition bandwagon. You may have special considerations that you’ll want to accommodate. Remember, functional wellness is about the individual — so it should be personalized to your needs!

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” ― Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Examples of Functional Foods & Food Swaps

In case you’re wondering, here are a few examples of functional foods or more-functional alternatives to common food you can try:

  • Cruciferous vegetables like mustard, broccoli, and cabbage. This plant family is packed with phytonutrients that can do stuff like reduce inflammation. They can often be swapped in for grains (e.g., riced cauliflower instead of white rice) or less-nutrient-rich greens (e.g., massaged kale in lieu of iceberg lettuce).

  • Non-dairy plant-based beverages. Replace that cup of cow juice with a glass of hemp milk. Or that dollop of half and half in your coffee with almond creamer.

  • Whole grains. Despite what you may have heard, your bod needs carbs. But not all carbs are equal. Complex carbs are the way to go — they’re more nutritious and will keep you feeling fuller longer.

You get the idea. But, because I care, I’ll share some more….

  • Nuts and seed

  • Beans and legumes

  • Berries

  • Wild fish

  • Fermented foods

  • Herbs and spices

  • Green and black teas

  • Apple cider vinegar

Functional Nutrition for the Wellness Win

Functional nutrition is one component of the function wellness approach to holistic healthcare. It utilizes the things you eat and drink to drive positive health outcomes — like reducing your risks for disease, helping you manage chronic conditions without medication, helping you feel more energized and balanced.

There are countless options when it comes to functional foods. The key is to opt for nutrient-dense foods and reasonable portions. And avoid foods that work against your desired wellness goals.

Now, go forth and explore what functional nutrition has to offer!

Disclaimer: We're not healthcare professionals. The content of this blog is for informational and entertainment purposes only. It is in no way to be construed as health or medical advice. If you have health concerns, consult with a qualified healthcare professional.

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