By: Jennifer Fleming, PhD, MS, RD, LDN
Is functional nutrition right for you? Before choosing a path forward, it’s important to understand what we mean when we say functional nutrition.
It often gets grouped in with traditional supplementation, but it is nuanced. “Functional” means the potency and ingredients serve a highly specific function in the body.
It’s a way to guarantee that you’re getting the nutrients you want out of that particular food.
Generally speaking, you want to get all the nutrients you need to come from your diet. Your meals should be focused on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins like chicken, fish and turkey, whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, and healthy fats like nuts and olive oil.
But if you’re like most of the population, it can be tough to follow a rigid diet year-round. Even when you do, genetics and other lifestyle factors play a role in your need for functional nutrition.
Functional nutrition fills in those gaps that you can’t get through diet alone due to factors within or outside of your control – whether it’s because you just can’t consume that many calories throughout the day, or you don’t have access to the freshest foods. Whatever the case, it’s all about meeting your individualized needs.
Certain people may require higher than average amounts of certain vitamins or minerals. It’s impractical to think that we can consume six to 12 servings of vegetables in one sitting. Functional nutrition concentrates the number of servings into a single serving, making it easier to get what you need all at once.
Then, there’s the food itself. For example, you don’t always know how good produce actually is at your grocery store. Nutrients per crop varies. That’s where functional nutrition comes into play.
And what about traditional supplementation?
When it comes to traditional supplementation, the same idea applies. You want to assess your diet for any gaps. The problem with that is it’s difficult to do on your own because a lot of the signs and symptoms aren’t always noticeable. It’s not until they’re super low that you find you’ve been deficient for quite some time.
For example, studies have shown as a population, we are deficient in vitamin D thanks to the sunscreen that people use, as well as increasing sedentary indoor lifestyles, and lack of sun in certain areas of the country. We’re not getting enough of the vitamin. Having a supplement to fill in the gaps is helpful throughout the year when you aren’t getting enough time outdoors in the sun.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is another one we see quite a bit in the aging population. That’s because as people age, the acidity in their stomach decreases and they have a hard time absorbing B12 through diet, specifically because it’s found in animal protein, which requires that acidity to break down. Vegans also struggle with getting enough vitamin B12 and that’s again, because we find it largely in animal protein. In both cases, we would actually recommend a type of supplementation.
When choosing the right functional food or supplement for your needs, you first need to look at your diet and see where you could be lacking. Work with a dietician or other physician to understand where your deficiencies are and come up with a plan for supplementing your diet. They’re not taking the place to have a healthy diet. They’re enhancing it.