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Next-Level Nourishment with Functional Foods

By Lesley Nickleson, RD, IFNCP

What are functional foods and how can they help?


This is exactly the question I asked myself when, as a Clinical Dietitian, I first came across the term ‘functional foods. At the time I had started in a new role in cancer care. While reviewing resources for my new role, I came across an old slide presentation with one slide in particular that showcased a colorful chart of “Functional Foods” and amounts to include weekly. I had never heard of this before. From that slide, I made my own little list of functional foods that I started to integrate into my clinical practice advocating for these foods in cancer care for their added health benefit.


As it turns out, it was life changing for me both professionally as a Registered Dietitian and personally because within months I began my training in Integrative Functional Nutrition.

The dictionary definition of ‘functional’ means “relating to the purpose or utility of an object, system or process.” When I think about this, I think of how the trillions of cells in our body are carrying out thousands to millions of biological processes like protein synthesis, metabolism, DNA replication and repair and cellular signaling every day to maintain essential functions and I definitely want foods that will actually support those vital functions.


So, what exactly is a functional food?


In scientific terms, a functional food is a defined as a whole food that provides a health benefit beyond providing basic nutrition due to the presence of active components including phytochemicals (Phyto means plant), antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, probiotics, prebiotics and other bioactive compounds.

These food components have been extensively studied and shown to have physiological benefits to promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease when included as part of a regular diet. Their efficacy is supported by clinical trials and epidemiological studies.


Takeaway: They are beyond basic nutrition but deliver added health and vitality.

How do we measure a functional food?


An ORAC score is a method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of foods. It is the oxygen radical absorbance capacity. It quantifies the ability of a food component to neutralize free radicals, preventing oxidative damage to cells and tissues. Higher ORAC scores indicate greater antioxidant potential.

An ANDI score, developed by Dr. Joel Furhman, is another scoring system that ranks foods based on their nutrient density. It is the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. It considers a variety of nutrients including antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Food with a higher ADNI score is considered to offer superior nutritional quality.

Takeaway: Functional foods have high concentrations of powerful nutrients.


How Can They Help: The Benefits of Functional Foods

Some the benefits include:

1. Enhanced Nutritional Value: Functional foods provide highly concentrated doses of essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and micronutrients that the body requires for maintaining optimal health.

2. Disease Prevention: Many functional foods contain bioactive compounds with potent healing properties to address deeper root causes of dysfunction in the body and reduce risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

3. Improved Digestive Health: Certain functional foods that are rich in fiber and probiotics promote gut health by supporting the growth of beneficial bacteria and regulate digestion. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for optimal nutrient absorption, immune functional and overall health, and well-being.

4. Heart Health: incorporating certain functional foods into your diet can help to lower cholesterol, regulate blood pressure, and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber support heart health.

5. Weight Management: Functional foods can aid in weight management by stabilizing blood sugars, promoting satiety and boosting metabolism. Optimizing protein-rich foods can support maintaining lean body mass and help keep you full longer, reducing the likelihood of overeating.

6. Immune Support: Certain functional foods, like garlic and citrus, contain immune-boosting nutrients like Vitamin C to help you strengthen your immune system and fight off infections.

 How Can You Get Them Into Your Daily Nutrition?

● Build a solid daily nutrition foundation based on a whole foods approach with quality proteins, 100% whole grains, healthy fats high in Omega 3 fatty acids and plenty of colorful vegetables and fruits.

 ● Include legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas everyday for a healthy dose of fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.

● Use liberal amounts of herbs and spices in your cooking as concentrated sources of plant nutrients. Experiment with a variety like turmeric, ginger, Ceylon cinnamon or garlic for antioxidants and nutrient unique properties.

● Have a small daily dose of nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, chia seeds or flaxseed which contain high amounts of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants.

● Try fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, or miso to support gut health.


So, What Was On my List as I first started to learn & integrate Functional Foods from the slide presentation into my cancer care…

My Early List of Functional Foods

#1 Blueberries

#2 Walnuts

#3 Turmeric spice

#4 Black Beans (pinto & kidney beans)

#5 Spinach

#6 Kale

#7 Broccoli

#8 Beets

#9 Purple Cabbage

#10 Oats

 The more I learned, the more I added foods like onion, Jerusalem artichoke, cilantro & shitake mushrooms.

 Now with my Board Certification in Functional Nutrition this list has extensively evolved with more targeted nutrition to address root cause.

Functional Foods with Personalized Nutrition

I get it! There are way too many nutrition recommendations, too many diets, too many foods to avoid and too many others to remember to include daily.


Sometimes you may get the feeling that figuring out your nutrition approach requires a graduate degree in nutrition. It can all be downright confusing. A Personalized Plan can change all of that for you.


When you work with a Registered Dietitian trained in Functional Nutrition you are provided with a highly personalized approach, tailored to your very unique needs.


A Functional Nutrition Assessment reviews your personal journey, symptoms you experience, diet and lifestyle factors, medical history, and conditions to address root cause and system imbalances and then provides targeted nutrition interventions, with daily doses of functional foods aimed at restoring function and balance in your body.


Basically, you learn to use food as medicine. Personalized Nutrition values simplicity & sustainability making it a pleasure instead of a burden and that can be practiced for a lifetime.

If you are looking to learn more about functional foods, download our free Guidebook below!

Functional Foods Guidebook
Download PDF • 31.96MB



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