Because many people today don’t include enough functional foods in their diets, food manufacturers now commonly add nutrients to processed foods in hopes of making them more appealing. However, as opposed to fortified or enriched food products (sometimes called nutraceuticals) — such as cereal grains, juices or meal replacement shakes for example — real functional foods are considered by most experts to be “whole foods” that naturally contain protective phytonutrients, antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
What are some examples of the nutrients found in functional foods? Some of the most well-known are omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibers, probiotics, and antioxidants like carotenoids, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
Most functional foods aid in disease prevention, such as reducing the risk for cardiovascular diseases, neurological conditions, depression or cancer by supporting the body’s ability to heal. Many functional foods are plants, such as vegetables, berries, herbs and spices, however there are also animal products that are considered superfoods/functional foods, such as fish and liver.
What are functional foods?
Functional foods are considered those that provide health benefits beyond their basic nutrients. In other words, not only do functional foods contain essential micronutrients and macronutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbs, fat and protein), but they also provide additional protective compounds and have positive effects on health markers that many other foods do not.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does regulate use of the term “functional food”, and there is no legal definition as to what makes a food functional. This can make understanding food labels difficult and confusing, especially when it comes to fortified processed food.
The fact that certain foods can help you live a vibrant, healthy life into older age is one example of how food can function as “medicine.” Each functional food is a bit different in terms of the benefits it provides, and how it works to support the immune system, cardiovascular system, nervous system and so on. Functional foods work in some of the following ways:
- Help to reduce inflammation
- Support gut health due to presence of live microbial cultures
- Support growth of probiotic bacteria (“prebiotics”)
- Reduce pathogenic bacteria and help enhance the immune system
- Help mitigate the negative effects of stress
- Support detoxification
- Balance cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as regulate heartbeats
- Aid in digestion and nutrient absorption
- Protect the brain from free radical damage and support cognitive health
- Give you more energy and enhance physical performance
- Help build and maintain bone mass
- Help to manage blood sugar levels
- Lower acidity and help alkalize the body
The best functional foods
While fortified/enriched foods might offer some nutrients that are missing in your diet, these are synthetic nutrients; therefore fortified foods shouldn't replace natural foods that provide these essential nutrients.
Below are some of the top functional foods to include in a nutrient-dense, clean eating meal plan:
- Probiotic foods, such as yogurt, kefir and cultured/fermented veggies including sauerkraut and kimchi. Probiotics have numerous roles, including protecting the lining of the GI tract, helping with absorption of nutrients, preventing common digestive issues and fighting infections.
- Omega-3 foods, especially wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, halibut, etc., plus walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds. Omega-3s may help to lower your risk of heart disease, depression, joint pain and more, plus they support cognitive/brain
- Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, berries, peppers, cruciferous veggies like broccoli or Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc. These are your best source of antioxidants (often which provide these foods with their colors) that support cellular health and fight oxidative stress.
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, flax, chia, hemp, walnuts, etc. regularly eating nuts/seeds is a good way to obtain fiber, protect your heart and brain, and keep hunger in check.
- Teas, herbs and spices, such as green tea, black tea, turmeric, ginger, parsley, cinnamon, etc. Not only do herbs/spices help flavor meals without adding extra calories, but they also have anti-inflammatory and often antimicrobial properties.
- Prebiotic foods (carbohydrates that contain fibers, resist digestion and help “feed” probiotics in the gut), such as leeks, onions, garlic, bananas, potatoes, asparagus, artichokes, beans, grains like oatmeal, and many other plant foods. Eating raw plant foods is one of the best ways to obtain more probiotics.
How to add functional foods to your diet
Ready to ditch processed foods and to emphasize more whole, functional foods in your diet? Here are tips and ideas for incorporating more of these healing foods into your meals:
1. Base your meals around these types of foods:
2. Avoid these foods as much as possible:
- Corn and soybean oils
- Pasteurized, conventional dairy
- Refined carbohydrates
- Conventional meat
- Sugars of all kinds
- Trans fats
- Processed grains
3. Eat a big salad everyday. Top leafy greens with functional foods like nuts, berries, avocado and a variety of different raw veggies.
4. Slant towards plant foods. A healthy eating meal plan consists of eating mostly plant-based fresh foods along with adequate amounts of quality protein and healthy fats.
5. Cook more at home, this way you can control what goes into your meals as well as control your portion size.
6. Pay attention to fats. Work on removing inflammatory “bad fats” (trans fats, and refined vegetable oils including soybean oil, canola oil, safflower and sunflower oil) from your diet and instead cook with coconut oil, real olive oil or grass-fed butter.
7. Choose quality animal products. If you eat a lot of animal proteins (meat, poultry, eggs, fish, diary), be sure to focus on purchasing quality products which have been grass-fed or pasture-raised and are cage-free and wild-caught.
8. Skip added sugar. When choosing dairy products, condiments, beverages, grains and other foods that tend to be sweetened, check the ingredients to make sure you’re not consuming added sugar (which goes by many different names such as fructose, dextrose, syrups, etc.).
9. Stick to 100% whole grains, rather than having lots of products made with processed grain flours.
10. Don’t drink your calories. Instead of having sweetened drinks such as juices and teas, drink unsweetened tea/coffee and have whole pieces of fruit instead.