Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard the buzz about superfoods. But have you heard the about functional foods?
If you were to go to the Mayo Clinic, you'd see this definition for functional foods: "Functional foods are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition." Ok, so what does that mean? What is considered "basic nutrition" and what is "beyond"?
Instead of splitting hairs or getting overly technical, let me give you this stat:
A recent Nielsen survey noted that three-fourths of consumers believe they can manage their health through nutrition, and almost one-third believe that food can replace medicine.
Right there, that's the premise of functional foods. That is the heart of the concept.
There are some foods that are manufactured to be functional, and some that have naturally occurring functional properties. For instance, when your orange is fortified with calcium, that's considered a functional food. Or when the inulin (fiber) from a plant is put into your FiberOne bar, that's considered a functional food.
This shouldn't shock you, but my favorite examples are those that are found naturally in plants. For example, the fiber in oats can help lower cholesterol. The lycopene (an antioxidant) in tomatoes may be protective against cancer. In each of these examples, it's not the life-sustaining role of the nutrient, but the "bonus" it provides your health.
I believe that your food should be working for your health, not against it. By choosing whole foods that are minimally processed, you can reap the benefits that nature intended. Sure, you could choose to supplement you diet with pills, powders and bars that are formulated to provide the right nutrition. But the science of nutrition is always evolving and growing, and we are getting benefits from our food that we don't even know about today.
It wasn't until the 1960s that the symptoms of a copper deficiency was realized - meaning until the 1960s we didn't really know that we needed copper in our diets. That was not that long ago! And this fact always pushes me to get my nutrients first from food, rather than a multivitamin.
So what's a practical take-away from this? Eat a variety of real food, of course! And think about reaching for a food-based solution before reaching for a pharmaceutical- or pill-based solution.*
*Of course, some issues require more intervention. Talk to a physician before stopping any medications, and consider seeing a registered dietitian before you self-diagnose :)