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What are Functional Foods?

In recent years, functional foods have gained in interest and popularity within health circles.

So, what are functional foods?

Functional foods are a variety of foods and ingredients that have beneficial health effects and benefits that extend beyond their simple nutritional value. They promote optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease.

Most natural foods are functional as they deliver physiological benefits including protein for muscle repair, carbohydrates for energy, and/or vitamins and minerals for cell function.

Essentially, functional foods are foods that include additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition and are designed to improve health. Functional foods are also known as nutraceuticals.

The opposite of functional foods are processed foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a processed food as one that has undergone any changes to its natural state – that is any raw agricultural commodity subjected to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. The food may include the addition of other ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as sugar, salt and different types of fats.

There are many foods that go beyond the incorporation of salt, sweeteners, or fat to include artificial colors, flavors and preservatives that promote shelf stability, preserve texture, and increase palatability. Several processing steps using multiple ingredients comprise the ultra-processed food.

Virtually all foods sold in the supermarket would be classified as “processed” to some degree.

It is speculated that these foods are designed to specifically increase cravings so that people will overeat them and purchase more. They are typically ready-to-eat with minimal additional preparation. Most of these foods tend to be low in fiber and nutrients. Examples are sugary drinks, cookies, crackers, chips, breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners and lunch meats.

These foods may partially, if not completely, replace natural, or minimally processed foods in people’s diets. One study using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that ultra-processed foods comprised about 60% of total calories in the U.S. diet.

Nutrient dense functional foods are highly nutritious and associated with a number of powerful health benefits.

Examples of nutrient dense functional foods are:

  1. Cold water fish – Salmon and Sardines

* Protein packed and high in Omega-3 fatty acids

  1. Nuts

* Help a person feel full and may promote heart health

* Provide a good source for magnesium, important in managing blood pressure

  1. Whole grains, such as Barley

* High in dietary fiber

* May help lower cholesterol and assist with blood sugar control

  1. Beans

* Provide dietary fiber, protein, potassium folate

  1. Berries

* Low in calories

* Their anthocyanin pigments, which give them color, offer health promoting benefits.

Functional foods are foods that are associated with several potential health benefits. They may prevent nutrient deficiencies – nutrient dense functional foods are typically high in important nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber. They may also protect against disease – many are especially rich in antioxidants. These molecules help neutralize harmful free radicals, helping prevent cell damage and certain chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

In summary, functional foods can be used to boost the intake of important nutrients, fill in gaps in a diet, and support overall health.

So, when your patients ask, “What should I eat?” explain the benefits of choosing functional foods over processed foods and suggest they consider eating as many functional foods as possible to help them stay healthy.



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