What Is Functional Nutrition?

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Years ago, Toby Keith wrote a song entitled “I Wanna Talk about Me” in which he lamented the fact that he was always listening to someone else and never focusing on his own needs and wants. The world of nutrition can often seem like that. Many dieticians and nutritionists or even random people on Instagram or Facebook want to share their ideas for the “best” new diet or some wonderful new weight-loss tip that doesn’t look at what your individual body needs.

Functional nutrition takes your body into account. It looks at your body, your needs, and any health problems and suggests what will make you a healthier person. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition calls this your bio-individuality—“the unique qualities that make up you and only you.” This includes the foods you consume and your lifestyle practices. It explains, “Your bio-individuality determines your nutritional needs from one day to the next and during different phases of your life. By listening to what your body needs and wants, you’ll be better able to nourish yourself with the foods that work for you, rather than everyone [else].”

Have you ever felt that you have done all the right things yet you still couldn’t lose weight or lower your sugar levels? Or maybe you began a weight-loss regimen that worked ten or twenty years ago and now it suddenly doesn’t work anymore? That’s because our bodies change over time and what we need to thrive changes over time.

Remember that there is a difference between surviving and thriving. We can survive on fast-food restaurant fare and pizza several days a week. But is that optimal? Of course not. And sooner or later, it will likely lead to health problems. Our goal should be to engage in healthy practices that will help us not only lose unnecessary weight but feel well and stave off diseases.

What we eat affects our overall health and can even help us begin to heal from certain health conditions. According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, “Chronic diseases account for the majority of health concerns in middle-aged and older populations, and many of these conditions respond well to nutritional interventions. Risks of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease are strongly linked to lifestyle, especially dietary choices.”

It goes on to say that “nutritional imbalances are potential contributors or causes of several chronic conditions, and nutrition-based interventions may bring relief or potentially resolve these conditions completely.” Changing your lifestyle—what you eat and how active you are—to avoid or improve those health problems is a much wiser choice than relying on medication and making no changes to your lifestyle. But it also requires more effort.

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition explains that the most important areas of functional nutrition include the following:

  • Focusing on whole and fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, quality protein, and whole grains.
  • Taking care of your gut microbiome. According to the institute, “With over 70% of your immune system living in your gut, it’s imperative that you support the gut environment through food and lifestyle. A diet full of processed foods can wreak havoc on your gut lining, causing leaky gut and leading to a host of health issues, such as bloating, gas, indigestion, brain fog, and chronic inflammation.” It suggests drinking plenty of water, eating foods with fiber, and staying physically active.
  • Staying healthy mentally, such as reducing stress levels, sleeping enough hours, maintaining good relationships. It states, “If you don’t sleep well and you experience high stress, you’re not setting your body up for success to utilize the quality nutrients you’re feeding it.”

Our goal should be to work with our individual bodies, taking into account any health problems or diseases; explore these nutritional practices and determine which work for us; and increase our activity levels.

So what is the first step in making changes? You start by eating functional foods that work with your body to maximize your health.

What are functional foods?

Functional foods are minimally processed, whole, and natural foods that are high in the vitamins, healthy fats, fiber, antioxidants, or minerals that our bodies need. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Salmon, trout, herring, and other fish high in Omega-3s
  • Unsalted nuts, especially almonds
  • Whole grains
  • Berries
  • Beans (unsalted)
  • Avocados
  • Vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli)
  • Seeds (pumpkin, chia, flax)
  • Spices (cinnamon, turmeric, ginger)

Functional foods can also be enriched or enhanced foods, such as milk or natural juices enriched with vitamin D. But make sure to read labels for unwanted ingredients like sodium that may cause problems if you have high blood pressure.

While all functional foods are good for you, some may be more beneficial than others. For instance, if you have high blood pressure, you may benefit from adding more oatmeal or oat bran to your diet. If you have diabetes, you may focus on adding more fiber to your diet. The point is to eat the foods that will benefit your individual body type and help improve any health issues you are experiencing.

Most people will benefit from changing the way they eat and increasing exercise. But some people will still find it difficult to do on their own and may need help. If this is you, don’t despair. Ask your doctor about finding a functional nutritionist who will look at your body, listen to your concerns, examine your current lifestyle and health problems, and then work with you to make changes.

Nutrition should be all about you. You are the one who has to live in your body, so don’t be afraid to tell your doctor, “I wanna talk about me.”

Byline Susan
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