The topic of functional foods – what are they and how they can be best incorporated into one’s life – comes up often in my health and wellness conversations, so I wanted to take a moment to share some of my thoughts on the matter.
As the Mayo Clinic shares, functional foods, which are also known as nutraceuticals, “are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.” In other words, functional foods promote overall health by helping reduce the risk of disease, preventing nutrient deficiencies, and promoting proper growth and development.
According to Healthline, “the concept [of functional foods] originated in Japan in the 1980s when government agencies started approving foods with proven benefits in an effort to better the health of the general population.” So, while most foods provide some health benefits – protein muscle repair, carbohydrates for energy or vitamins and minerals for cell function, for example – foods deemed to be “functional” are, “minimally processed, whole foods along with fortified, enriched or enhanced foods..and have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed on a regular basis and at certain levels.”
Now that we’ve explored the idea of functional foods, let’s look at a few specific examples of foods which fall into this category and their health benefits:
- Fish: Oily fish like salmon, sardines, trout, and herring are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help reduce inflammation, lower risk of heart disease, and provide numerous mental health benefits.
- Nuts: Nuts such as cashews, almonds, and pistachios, promote heart health and are a great source of magnesium, which helps manage blood pressure. Go for unsalted or very lightly salted.
- Whole grains: Oats have been shown to help lower cholesterol and control blood sugar levels because of their soluble fiber content. Barley, farro and buckwheat are other great whole grain options that provide lots of fiber and other important nutrients.
- Legumes: Black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, and lentils (just to name a few) are rich in dietary fiber, protein, potassium, and folate—and they’re super affordable, making them a terrific addition to all diets.
- Berries: Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries are loaded with antioxidants and vitamins, are high in fiber and help fight inflammation, and if fresh berries aren’t in season, frozen berries offer all the same benefits.
- Veggies: It’s always good to eat a diet rich in vegetables – think broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, zucchini – but if you need more reason to eat these nutritional powerhouses, know that they are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that provide other health benefits like reducing inflammation and even protecting against certain types of cancer.
- Seeds: Chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds are some of my go-to options when I want to add extra nutritional value to meals or snacks. Seeds are great sources of fiber as they contain healthy monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and many important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
- Fruits: Many fruits besides berries offer benefits. Kiwi, pears, peaches, apples, oranges, bananas are some of the top functional foods fruits because they are great sources of vitamins and minerals, are rich in fiber, and have been shown to protect against numerous diseases.
- Fermented foods: Plain yogurt, kefir, Tempeh, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut are some of my favorite fermented foods. The probiotic bacteria found in these foods aid in digestion and have been shown to also support physical and mental wellbeing in numerous ways.
- Herbs and spices: I love to spice up my foods whenever possible, and a few of my favorite functional herbs and spices to incorporate are turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and cayenne pepper. Spices and herbs are rich in antioxidants and offer anti-inflammatory benefits.
While the foods I’ve listed above are all whole foods, there is room for some minimally processed foods in the functional foods category, so don’t feel like you can’t eat foods which have been fortified. In fact, while my recommendation is to focus on whole foods whenever possible, there is no shame in turning to fortified foods when needed – just make sure to read labels closely so that you’re not frequently eating foods which contain a lot of ingredients that are not beneficial to your health. For example, oatmeal topped with blueberries and nuts is a great choice for a daily breakfast, but you might want to limit the number of granola bars with nuts, dried berries, and added buzzword-y ingredients you eat.
Ultimately, focusing on eating a well-rounded diet, rich in a variety of functional foods will help best fuel and nourish your body. Want to learn more about me and the work I do? Check out my book, The Little Book of Game Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety
If you’re interested in more formally studying functional foods and functional nutrition, check out mindbodygreen’s health coaching certification program—you also get you access to their Functional Nutrition training program, which I am an instructor for.
DIsclosure: This post may contain a few affiliate links, meaning that if you click on the link and purchase something, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you.
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