What Are Functional Foods? 8fit’s Take

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates’ famous quote still rings true today. Functional foods contain physiologically active components that give them health benefits that go far beyond meeting nutritional needs. For example, protein contributes to muscle repair while carbohydrates give our bodies energy. Another way to think of functional foods is as a preventative medicine that keeps the body in tip-top shape and reduces the risk of disease.

The term functional food encompasses a broad range of products and ingredients, some that are naturally functional and some that manufacturers add to various food products. An example of a naturally-occurring functional food would be the probiotics in fermented foods, while an example of an added functional nutrient would be folic acid baked into cereal. These additions usually improve the nutritional value of the food and are thereby functional.

Our functional foods definition: Foods that heal

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, functional foods are “whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.” Confused? We got you.

Unfortunately, there’s no legal or governmental functional foods definition which makes grocery shopping tricky. Manufacturers are allowed to use words like “fortified,” “enriched,” and “enhanced” on their packaging when they’ve added a nutrient, vitamin or mineral to a product. For example, you might see yogurt fortified with vitamin D, eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, and almond milk fortified with calcium.

Sounds great, right? Well, it’s sometimes great. Remember that “fortified” doesn’t mean “healthy.” Oftentimes, manufacturers decorate their packaging with marketing ploys and healthwashing claims so that the consumer overlooks the ingredient list. Turn that food around to find the truth — like the fact that their yogurt contains a lot of sugar, that their eggs aren’t organic, or that their almond milk sometimes has controversial carrageenan.

Our best advice is to avoid packaged foods altogether and get your nutrients from natural functional foods — fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy proteins — like the ones in your 8fit meal plan. Time to dig into our functional favorites!

Friendly bacteria

Your digestive system includes a community of bacteria, some that help and some that harm. Some evidence suggests that including more probiotic-containing foods (healthy bacteria) can help improve gastrointestinal disorders, increase immunity, and possibly encourage weight loss.

Probiotics

Chances are, you’ve heard of probiotics. Touted for their health properties, these healthy bacteria are living microorganisms which, when consumed as food or supplements, offer numerous benefits. One significant advantage is that these healthy bacteria can survive in the gut, creating microbiomes that may improve dietary health. Bacterial strains like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, in particular, are good for the belly.

Natural sources of probiotics include:

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are the food source for probiotics. They stimulate the growth and activity of health-promoting bacteria and can also inhibit the increase of bad bacteria. Eating more of these foods can help create a healthy environment in the intestine:

creamy oats with apple healthy 8fit recipe

Plant stanols and sterols

When it comes to heart health, fats from plants are showing potential health benefits. Two of those fats, plant stanols and plant sterols, reduce the absorption of cholesterol, both from the diet and from what has reached the gut via bile acids produced in the liver. The structure of plant stanols is very similar to cholesterol, making them exceptionally well equipped to compete with cholesterol in the gut. Unabsorbed cholesterol gets excreted, and as a result, blood cholesterol levels decrease. This process lowers LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels without reducing the healthy HDL (high-density lipoprotein).

Add these sources of plant stanols and sterols to your day:

  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes

You’ll find plant stanols and sterols in everything from yogurts and granola bars to margarine and butter spreads.

avocado_and_bean_dip_food_recipe

Functional foods list

Typically, nutritionists call foods functional because they contain high amounts of phytochemicals or antioxidants — also known as natural, active plant-based chemicals that may boost levels of health. Here are some more of our top picks for all-natural, non-fortified versions of functional foods.

Oats

These nutritional powerhouses contain soluble fiber b-glucan which can reduce LDL cholesterol which, in turn, can lower the risk of coronary heart disease. You’ll find oats in some granolas, whole-oat bread, and of course, oatmeal. Want to add some serious power points to your breakfast? Try adding oats to your scrambled eggs and frying them up as usual. They make your eggs more filling while increasing the heart-healthy properties.

Fatty fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, healthy fats that help reduce inflammation in the body. They have been shown to lower triglyceride levels and therefore reduce coronary heart disease. These healthy fats can boost brain health, enhance your mood, and even improve skin. Look for them in fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and trout.

citrus_salmon_salad_wild_simon

Soy

Tofu, tempeh and edamame — they’re all brought to you by soy. Soy contains phytochemicals such as isoflavones and genistein which can help lower your cholesterol. Controversially, some have also asserted that it can fight cancer. If you do decide to consume soy, try to go for whole soy products such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, and roasted soy nuts, rather than processed versions of soy like soy isolate, faux meats, and soy snack bars.

Tomatoes

Lycopene is a phytonutrient that comes from red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Researchers have linked it to a reduced risk of prostate cancer as well as other cancers and heart disease. You can look out for lycopene in fresh tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salsa. Just make sure to eat the skin, as that’s where you’ll get the most concentrated source of lycopene.

villa tomatoes slice healthy functional foods

Nuts

Nuts shine when it comes to their functional benefits. They contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and vitamin E which can both help lower your risk of heart disease. Vitamin E is also an antioxidant that helps reduce free radical cell damage. We recommend nuts like cashews, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, and pistachios.

Flaxseed

Flaxseed a good name thanks to its plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, but another functional food component of flax is lignans. When the bacteria in your gut digest lignans, they produce phytoestrogens which can change how estrogen is metabolized, making it so the body to produces less active forms of estrogen — it could even play a role in decreasing the risk of estrogen-related cancers.

Red wine

A Coach Lisa favorite — in moderation, of course — red wine contains resveratrol. This phytonutrient boasts some heart-healthy benefits because it may help protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. You’ll find resveratrol in the skin of dark grapes, so aim for red wine versus white. Try to practice moderation if you are going to drink and focus on healthier versions.

Vegetables

Leafy greens and other colorful vegetables contain phytochemicals such as carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Carotenoids are a powerful antioxidant, lutein is stellar for eyesight, and zeaxanthin improves immune function. Add vegetables to your meals by mixing them in your morning omelet, adding greens to smoothies, or baking pureed pumpkin and squash into pancakes or bread.

kale chips functional foods veggies

Fortified functional foods

Fortified foods and enriched foods are usually lumped together into one category even though  they can be very different from each other. Food companies create “enriched foods” by replacing vitamins and minerals that were stripped away during their production, while fortification means adding extra vitamins, minerals, or functional components to foods that normally wouldn’t already have them.

Fortified functional foods typically have a more favorable nutrient profile, which is why food manufacturers are happy to add them to their foods. Some examples include preventing neural tube defects by adding folic acid to processed food, enriching eggs with omega-3 is to benefit heart health and lowering cholesterol by adding plant sterols to margarine. Some of these functional fortifications are beneficial yet, here at 8fit, we always recommend aiming for whole foods versus processed.

Case in point:
If a manufacturer adds plant sterols to hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated margarine, it defeats the purpose because hydrogenated oils still increase the risk of heart disease.

Get functional

Functional foods contain physiologically-active components that may enhance your health in many ways. As with anything, they are not the magic pill nor are they the complete solution to overall health. Focus on eating quality protein, healthy fats, and plenty of plant-based, high-fiber foods, and you’ll get plenty of functional foods in your diet naturally. Pair them with regular activity, limited to no substance abuse (alcohol, smoking, drugs), and decreased stress, and you’ll be well on your way to functioning at your best.