Modern nutrition science likes to pretend that it simplifies the age-old question of what’s for dinner. In reality, most of us are more confused than ever. If you’re sick of struggling to sift through contradictory advice about optimal eating plans, it’s time to adopt a different framework—functional nutrition.
But what is functional nutrition? And how can you put it into practice? The answer may not be as complicated as you think.
What is Functional Nutrition?
Functional nutrition is the practice of considering every aspect of health, diet, and overall lifestyle when giving nutrition recommendations. It aligns with the ideologies of functional medicine.
Functional medicine follows an approach to health care that takes into consideration how interrelated every part of the body is. This strategy seeks to look at the big picture of health by restoring physiological functioning.
With functional nutrition, symptoms are seen as clues for managing your primary health issues, whether they are related to diet, illnesses, medications, lifestyle factors, exposure to toxins, antibiotic use, or other factors.
While standard healthcare will try to suppress these symptoms with medication, functional nutrition and functional medicine see them as clues for understanding the underlying issues within the body. By considering the impacts of seemingly unrelated factors on health, functional nutritionists will put together a holistic health plan that takes every aspect of health into consideration.
For these reasons, functional nutrition is never one-size-fits-all. Instead, it is a highly customizable holistic health perspective that takes your unique situation into account to support healing from the cellular level.
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Functional Medicine Versus Functional Nutrition
While the terms “functional medicine” and “functional nutrition” are often used interchangeably, they aren’t technically the same. Functional medicine is a broad medical approach that treats health problems as a part of the whole interconnected body system. Functional nutrition takes this perspective one step further by highlighting the ways that food is a fundamental component of health. Functional nutrition focuses on dietary habits, but it also considers the other components of health and whether food can be a part of the root cause.
The Functional Nutrition Process
Clients come to health practitioners with a diverse array of concerns, including inflammation and chronic diseases.
In most cases, a functional nutrition approach requires practitioners to follow a sequence of steps to determine what dietary changes their client will best benefit from. While these steps tend to vary significantly, they usually include the following:
- Comprehensive evaluation of previous medical history
- Review of organ systems
- Review of medication and supplement history
- Review of current diet and lifestyle habits
- Review of previous medical testing and results
- Nutrient test to gauge potential deficiencies
With these results, a functional nutritionist will work to develop a customized program that targets the root cause of their client’s health problems. Program options might include suggestions for dietary changes, like eliminating overly processed foods or entire food groups like gluten or dairy. Sometimes it’s recommended to take a supplement to improve digestion or encourage the establishment of beneficial bacteria. Other times they will teach their client how to manage lifestyle factors, like learning how to handle stress or better manage their nervous system impulses.
Put another way, it is typically out of a functional nutrition practitioner’s scope to diagnose, prescribe, or treat their patients for specific conditions. Instead, their role is to look at all health problems with a holistic approach, educate patients about the ways their behavior is impeding their optimal health, and offer suggestions for improvement.
How to Follow a Functional Nutrition Eating Strategy
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no single functional nutrition diet. Instead, the right dietary strategy for you is the one that’s designed to address your specific health concerns.
Even so, some general premises hold true for almost anyone seeking to eat in a way that supports their body. The following principles outline what functional nutrition can look like for you on a personal level.
The five main principles of following a functional nutrition plan include:
Fill Up on Essential Nutrients
The components of your food make up the building blocks of your entire body. Nutrients like vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids, essential fatty acids, probiotics, and complex carbohydrates are vital for keeping your body functioning well. By nourishing it with what it needs each day, you are setting your system up for a state of health.
Avoid Toxic Growing Conditions
In today’s world, it’s more important than ever to understand precisely what is in your food. Factory-farmed animal products, GMO crops, and pesticide-laced produce are all filling your digestive system with substances humans weren’t exposed to even 80 years ago, and the impacts on your health can be extreme. Take care to source your food from places you can trust to ensure that each bite contains exactly what you expect and nothing more.
Stick with Quality Foods
Just as the quality of gas in your car makes a difference in how well it drives, the components within your food dictate how well your body will run. Filling up on heavily processed food will prevent you from taking in all the nutrients you need, potentially compromising your system.
Prioritize Gut Health
Hippocrates told us that health begins and ends in the gut, and eating the world’s most nutritious diet won’t do you any good if your digestive system isn’t prepared to process it. Over 80 percent of your immune system is located in the gut, and without it functioning correctly you are at risk for infections, inflammation, autoimmune diseases, and hormone imbalances, many of which may be misdiagnosed as other conditions.
Tending to your gut requires that you keep it healthy with beneficial bacteria and prevent pathogens and undigested food from causing problems. Make sure you know the signs of intestinal permeability, irritable bowel syndrome, and other conditions so that you can tell when something has fallen out of place.
Tend to Your Microbiome
Healthy digestion doesn’t happen without a robust supply of beneficial microbes in your stomach and intestines. In fact, the human gut contains ten times more bacteria than all cells that make up your body.
These bacteria are collectively called a microbiome, and they are responsible for a myriad of health processes that affect your immune system, mental health, memory formation, and risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease. Ensuring you eat foods filled with probiotics will help your microbial levels stay high, which will help your immune system work as it should.
Starting a Dialogue About Your Diet with Functional Nutrition
Let’s summarize: why is functional nutrition so powerful? It allows you to utilize food to support your body and set it up for optimal health. By realigning your relationship with food and thinking through the ways that every aspect of your physical and emotional life is interconnected, you can shift your entire paradigm on eating to make it easier to make healthy choices.
How do health practitioners determine which functional nutrition eating strategy makes the most sense for their clients? Most use a “functional medicine matrix” to examine how a client’s health history, lifestyle choices, and current diet might be contributing to their health concerns.
Generally, it’s stressed how vital it is for you to take in a variety of foods as opposed to a range of “food products.” Functional nutritionists generally recommend eating a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet that contains little in the way of processed ingredients.
Keep in mind that a functional nutrition diet isn’t a one-and-done event. It is a dynamic process where you will continuously experiment with your diet and lifestyle and tweak the variables until you find what works for you. Success comes from listening to your body and being aware of how it responds to different factors so that you can be continuously supporting it.
This level of ongoing dialogue isn’t always available in the modern health system, which is why seeking out the advice of a functional nutrition expert is so beneficial for your health journey.
Functional Nutrition: The Healthcare of the Future For Optimal Health
Holistic thinking is gaining traction in the medical world, and the trend shows little sign of slowing down. Functional nutrition provides answers to some of today’s most significant health problems. Its premise of looking at individual health concerns holistically can make a world of difference in your overall health and quality of life.
By taking time to learn more about this paradigm shift, you can start supporting your body with nutrition and pursuing optimal health.