We are all familiar with the value and importance of good nutrition, but have you heard about functional nutrition? Functional nutrition is a holistic approach to diet that takes it a step further than the traditional science of nutrition.
What Is Functional Nutrition?
Functional nutrition is the practice of considering every aspect of one’s health, diet, and overall lifestyle when seeking nutrition recommendations. The strategy of functional nutrition is to look at the big picture of health and to take into consideration not only nutrition, but one's lifestyle factors that could affect their food choices, such as activity levels, environment, or the presence of chronic disease.
Functional nutrition looks at nutrition in the context of an individual’s physiological makeup and how they live, such as how often they move, the quality of their relationships, and their stress level. It is a highly individualized approach to nutrition that seeks to tailor one’s diet to one’s individual needs.
While there is plenty of nutritional information out there, and plenty of info to demonstrate that a food may be good for you, it does not necessarily mean it is good for you as an individual.
There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Health
Humans are incredibly complex, and each one of us is extremely unique as an individual. We all have different genetic backgrounds, live in different climates and environments, have different levels of activity, have different food allergies or sensitivities, and so many other things that can factor into our health. Functional nutrition aims to consider all of our individual differences so that we can figure out what is the right diet for us personally.
Functional Nutrition vs Functional Medicine
Functional nutrition is very similar to the practice of functional medicine, but the terms are not meant to be used interchangeably. Functional medicine is a systems biology–based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease. According to the Institute of Functional Medicine: “the functional medicine model is an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors and leverages that data to direct personalized treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.”
Both functional nutrition and functional medicine share the same approach, that “food is medicine.” However, functional medicine is based on healing and aims to treat the root cause of disease by removing the causes of disease and focusing on how to build and maintain health. It is a medical model, a form of alternative medicine. Functional nutrition is not necessarily focused on healing or treating illness, just on building and maintaining health by taking a systems approach to diet.
It is not something that requires you to work with a health care practitioner, though it may be helpful. It is something that can be approached on one’s own by taking a look at the big picture of your life and considering the many unique details of your diet and lifestyle and what may be best for you personally. If you have little knowledge of nutrition or health, however, it may be best to seek advice from a functional nutrition expert if you are considering taking this approach to your health.
Functional Nutrition vs Standard Nutrition
Functional nutrition and standard nutrition are quite different. Standard nutrition focuses only on the nutrients that are considered to be necessary or beneficial to human health. According to standard nutrition, as long as we consume these nutrients in their recommended daily allowances (RDA) then we will be healthy. While there is some truth to that, it is a very narrow and limited approach to nutrition.
Functional nutrition takes more into consideration. Functional nutrition considers the nutrient requirements of the body, but it also looks at where those nutrients come from, how easy or difficult they are to digest, whether they can be absorbed by the body easily, and what other factors may influence the best dietary choice for you.
Basically, standard nutrition is a one-size-fits-all model that says “here are the nutrients that everybody needs to be healthy.” Functional nutrition looks at you as an individual and considers “what might affect your health as an individual and what would the best diet be for you personally?”
To illustrate the difference: tomatoes are a great source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K1 and folate. However, tomatoes are also a nightshade, and some people may have a mild or severe food allergy to nightshades that could affect their health or their ability to break down and absorb the nutrients in tomatoes. By understanding one’s individual food sensitivities, one can make a more informed decision about whether or not tomatoes are a good food for them. So, rather than a general statement of “tomatoes are good for you and a good source of nutrients,” functional nutrition says “tomatoes are rich in important nutrients and may be a good food for some, but may not be for others depending on their individual sensitivities.
Another consideration is one’s level of activity. If one is an extreme athlete, they are going to need to consume more calories and protein than someone who exercises a few times a week. We couldn’t say that 2,000 calories are good for everyone, for example. Some might need more, some might need less, depending on their lifestyle.
One can take this approach to great lengths, such as one’s local environment and what foods may be best at what time of year, or consider the different ways that foods are prepared. Regardless, the common theme is that one looks at many different aspects of one’s health as an individual to determine what is the best choice for them, rather than just looking at the nutritional information alone.
How to Practice Functional Nutrition
Practicing functional nutrition involves embracing this holistic approach to health as you make your daily nutritional choices or incorporating the functional nutrition approach into your work as a wellness practitioner.
Many health practitioners incorporate functional nutrition by becoming part of an integrative medicine and nutrition team and supporting clients alongside other health professionals to provide the best and most effective care for their patient.
For example, a health coach works with clients to establish and reach health goals, but they do not prescribe diet plans or diagnose or treat medical conditions. A health coach can refer a client to a functional medicine practitioner for lab work to determine the root causes of their symptoms and can help them understand the recommendations provided to keep them accountable to making diet and lifestyle changes.
The important areas to focus on, whether you are practicing functional nutrition for yourself or as a health practitioner, are:
Diet. Aim to focus on real, whole foods, and avoid consuming foods and substances that are harmful to your health. To have optimal health, one must focus on diet, and aim to get essential nutrients on a daily basis found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quality protein, and healthy fat. Functional nutrition considers the old saying that “food is medicine.” What you eat can either feed health or feed disease. Consider this when you make your food choices and aim to eat in a way that is healing to your body and mind.
Gut health. Gut health is extremely important when it comes to health. A major difference in functional nutrition and standard nutrition is the focus on one’s gut health. We can eat all the essential nutrients that we need, but if we have difficulty digesting and absorbing these nutrients, we are still going to end up being deficient. We have to optimize our gut health in order to truly be health. Our gut health largely depends on our gut microbiome—the community of bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside our gut. These microorganisms play many essential roles in digestion, immunity, hormonal balance, and other important body processes. Unfortunately, due to chemicals added in food, antibiotics, excess alcohol consumption and other dietary and lifestyle factors, many people have very poor gut health. It is imperative that you support the gut environment through food and lifestyle. You can do this by eating plenty of fiber, staying hydrated, being physically active, and by taking a high quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement (link product) to add more beneficial bacteria to your gut microbiome.
Lifestyle. Health is so much more than just diet. Health includes hydration, quantity and quality of sleep, stress levels, levels of activity, social relationships, work-life balance, and much more. Even if you eat a nutritious diet, if you don’t sleep well, experience high levels of stress, aren’t happy with your work or how you spend your time, have unhealthy relationships, then you will not be healthy. Take a look at the big picture of your life and consider what may be contributing to your health and what may be contributing to illness, and make adjustments in your life accordingly. Functional nutrition can support you in making better nutritional choices that fit your individual needs and goals.
Environment. Your environment also plays a critical role in your health. Not only can the environment you spend your time in affect your mood, but it can affect your health in very direct and physical ways. For example, you may be exposed to mold, dust, dander and other airborne toxins that could be causing you ill health. If so, you may be doing everything you can to live healthily, but this alone can still cause you to experience ill health. On the other hand, an environment with good air quality can greatly enhance your health. Air quality, light exposure, how much time you spend outside, positive social relationships, etc. all of these and more can affect your health. Consider the environments that you spend time in and think about how they may be affecting you.
Functional nutrition is a holistic approach to diet that considers every aspect of one’s health, diet, and overall lifestyle when seeking nutrition recommendations. Functional nutrition looks at nutrition in the context of an individual’s physiological makeup and how they live, such as how often they move, the quality of their relationships, and their stress level. It is a highly individualized approach to nutrition that seeks to tailor one’s diet to one’s own individual needs.
Functional nutrition differs from standard nutrition in this way, as standard nutrition is a very general, across the board approach that states what the requirements are for the human body and what foods provide these nutritional needs. At the end of the day, functional nutrition is all about you and your bio-individuality.
Regardless of whether you practice functional nutrition, the idea behind it is something that we all can benefit from. Functional nutrition invites us to look at the whole of our lives and to consider more areas of health than just diet. It also invites us to look at diet in a more holistic way, instead of focusing only on nutrition. Functional nutrition can offer many benefits to anyone that takes this approach to their life, as all of us are unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all diet.