What Is Functional Nutrition?
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
The term nutrition encompasses so many concepts, ideologies, and theories that it can feel difficult to keep up with what’s right, what’s wrong, or what’s the latest trend. With nutrition science ever changing and evolving, we look to experts to tell us what to include and what to avoid in our diets.
There are indeed foundational nutrition concepts that can benefit us all – less refined carbohydrates, less processed foods, and more focus on real, whole foods. But contrary to what the diet industry often asks us to believe, when it comes to the “best diet” for everyone, it doesn’t exist. And here’s why: To honor your bio-individuality – the unique qualities that make up you and only you – the foods you eat, as well as your lifestyle practices, will look different from everyone else’s.
Your bio-individuality determines your nutritional needs from one day to the next and during different phases of your life. By listening to what your body needs and wants, you’ll be better able to nourish yourself with the foods that work for you, rather than everyone on your Instagram feed.
So how do you kick off this process of figuring out the foods that work – and don’t work – for you? That’s where functional nutrition comes in.
What is functional nutrition?
Functional nutrition is the holistic approach to diet, taking into consideration one's lifestyle factors that could affect their food choices, such as activity levels, environment, or the presence of chronic disease. You may be wondering how this is different from standard nutrition practice, but the key is in the holistic approach.
Standard nutrition focuses on the nutritional facts, such as a food or food group’s ability to promote or damage health (whether it's “good” or “bad” for you). Functional nutrition looks at these facts, too, but 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. Essentially, just because a food or food group has been demonstrated as being “good for you,” it doesn’t mean it’s good for you — functional nutrition means one size doesn’t fit all!
Functional nutrition vs. standard nutrition
The practice of functional nutrition is similar to that of functional medicine, though the terms are not meant to be used interchangeably. Functional medicine is a patient-centered practice rather than a disease-centered practice. It focuses on the body as a whole ecosystem, and the main goal is to address the root cause of symptoms, such as gastrointestinal distress, skin issues, and brain fog. These symptoms can be clues to potential food-related health issues, such as nutritional deficiencies, food sensitivities, or food allergies.
Practicing functional nutrition mirrors the functional medicine approach where “food is medicine.” Food has the power to heal or harm, and the practice of functional nutrition centers around the individual - IIN's Health Coach Training Program teaches you to put your client first, teaching functional nutrition in addition to integrative nutrition, coaching methodologies, personal development, and business-building skills. Standard nutrition, in contrast, broadly follows nutritional guidelines created for an entire population.
Functional nutrition can better promote health, especially for those who have received standard nutrition recommendations but are still experiencing symptoms – for example, if you’re continuing to gain weight despite eating healthier and increasing physical activity. From a standard nutrition point of view, you’re doing all the right things. From a functional nutrition point of view, there are other things to consider to figure out this unexplained weight gain, such as thyroid dysfunction, hormonal imbalance, a need to detox the gut, and even high stress levels.
Here are some pros and cons of functional and standard nutrition:
Pros of functional nutrition
- Tailored to meet your unique needs
- Easier to put into practice because dietary choices are explained by a practitioner who knows your health history and lifestyle practices
- Looks at the food you’re eating in the context of your lifestyle practices to make sure you’re nourishing your body well
Cons of functional nutrition
- Depending on the expert or practitioner you visit for functional nutrition guidance, it could be more expensive than a standard nutritionist visit
Pros of standard nutrition
- Depending on the expert or practitioner, the visit could be less expensive, especially if you’re looking for more general nutrition advice
Cons of standard nutrition
- It could be more difficult to put standard nutrition advice into practice depending on a variety of factors, such as being sensitive to the foods recommended, not ruling out the root cause(s) of your symptoms, or the practitioner not fully knowing or understanding your unique history
How to practice functional nutrition
Practicing functional nutrition can look like embracing the holistic health concept as you make daily nutritional choices or incorporating functional nutrition into your work as a wellness practitioner.
Many health practitioners, from dietitians to Health Coaches, incorporate functional nutrition by becoming part of an integrative medicine and nutrition team and supporting clients alongside other health professionals to provide the most robust and effective care.
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 cause(s) of their symptoms and help them understand the recommendations provided to keep them accountable to making diet and lifestyle changes.
Whatever path you choose, the most important areas of functional nutrition include:
- A focus on real, whole foods – Optimal health is built on a foundation of getting essential nutrients, found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quality protein, and healthy fat. Remember, one of functional nutrition’s mottos is “food as medicine,” which means eliminating processed foods and eating a balanced diet full of colorful variety.
- Taking care of your gut microbiome – With over 70% of your immune system living in your gut, it’s imperative that you support the gut environment through food and lifestyle. A diet full of processed foods can wreak havoc on your gut lining, causing leaky gut and leading to a host of health issues, such as bloating, gas, indigestion, brain fog, and chronic inflammation. Supporting your gut can include eating plenty of fiber, staying hydrated, and being physically active.
- Supporting a healthy life off the plate – Areas of your life, such as the quality of your relationships, your stress levels, and even your sleep routine, all impact the way your body processes and assimilates the food you eat. If you don’t sleep well and you experience high stress, you’re not setting your body up for success to utilize the quality nutrients you’re feeding it. A lack of sleep in combination with stress can also cause you to reach for the sugar-laden foods that produce that “feel good” feeling in the brain but quickly cause a crash in both your mood and energy. By taking a look at your life experiences beyond the plate, functional nutrition can support you in making better nutritional choices that fit your needs and goals.
At the end of the day, functional nutrition is all about you and your bio-individuality. And as a practitioner who uses functional nutrition to support people in reaching their health goals, you’ll be giving them ample opportunity to explore what works for them, reaching their full potential and becoming their healthiest, happiest selves. To learn more about IIN's holistic approach to health and why it's the key to well-being and success, check out IIN’s free Sample Class.