Functional Eating: A diet in disguise or a health miracle?

Functional eating has become a rising topic of interest in nutritional research alongside new innovations within the food industry. The functional eating market is advertised as giving consumers better control over their health and well-being.

What is functional eating?

There is no clear definition for functional eating and functional foods, as all foods provide functions in some way, providing energy and nutrients.

From the definitions available, functional eating can be described as a diet that consists of functional foods. Functional foods are foods that are believed to have a potentially positive effect on our overall health and well-being, beyond that of a standard diet or basic nutrition. Functional foods must be consumed on a regular basis, as part of a balanced and varied diet, to have an effect (1).

Consumers were asked about their perception of functional foods in a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in 2009. 89% of consumers said that they believed that certain foods would have benefits that go beyond the basic nutrition and that these foods may reduce the risk of certain diseases or health-related concerns (6).

Medical foods or dietary supplements are not considered to be functional foods. This is because they are often used in in addition to your normal diet to help supplement the diet for a given time. Functional foods consist of whole foods, fortified, enriched, and enhanced foods.

Functional foods will often fall into one of the following categories (1) (4):

  • Conventional foods. These foods will contain natural bioactive compounds. Most meats, fish, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and grains will provide benefits.
  • Modified foods. These foods contain bioactive compounds through fortifications and enrichments. For example, the n-3 fatty acids added to spreads and eggs.
  • Synthesised food ingredients. This includes indigestible carbohydrates, which can provide prebiotic benefits similar to resistant starch.

Table 1: Examples of Functional Food Items (4)

Type of functional food category Examples of functional food:
Conventional
Whole grains: oats, barley, couscous, brown rice, buckwheat
Fruits: Berries, bananas, oranges, pears, apples, peaches
Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, courgette
Nuts: almonds, Brazil, cashews, macadamia, pistachios
Seeds: chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin
Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, haricot beans (baked beans), lentils
Seafood: salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, cod
Herbs and spices: ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne pepper
Fermented food/drinks: kefir, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, sauerkraut
Beverages: green tea, black tea, coffee
Modified
Fortified Dairy products: milk, yogurts
Fortified Milk Alternatives: almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk
Fortified Eggs
Fortified Juices
Fortified grains: bread, pasta
Fortified breakfast cereals and granola

Potential benefits

Functional eating is said to be associated with several potential health benefits.

Functional foods are often high in important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Having a diet high in functional foods can help you ensure you get your required daily nutrients and prevent nutritional deficiencies.

Functional foods can also help your body protect itself against disease. This is because many functional foods are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants help the body to neutralise harmful compounds called free radicals. This allows our bodies to prevent cell damage that can lead to chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer (7). Some functional foods that are high in fibre help keep our digestive system healthy and prevent digestive disorders such as acid reflux, stomach ulcers, and diverticulitis. Fibre can also help regulate our blood sugar levels by slowing down the absorption of sugar from foods. This can protect against type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, and obesity (5). Some functional foods, such as seafood, nuts, and seeds, are high in a type of fat called omega-3 fatty acids. They help reduce inflammation through the regulation of blood clotting and contracting of arteries. This can help promote good heart health and brain function (8).

Regular consumption of functional foods may also promote growth and development. Breakfast cereals, grains and flour are often fortified with B vitamins such as folic acid – which is needed for foetal health and growth. Low folic acid intake can increase someone’s risk of neural tube defects, affecting the foetal brain, spine and/or spinal cord (3). It has been estimated that folic acid fortification has led to a 46% reduction in neural tube defects (2). Essential nutrients for growth such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and fatty acids are also found within functional foods (both modified and conventional).

Summary

Due to advances in science and technology, the functional eating and functional food market has been able to expand over the years. Consumers have become more interested in the benefits of food and nutrition, allowing these markets to grow and expand even further. Functional foods can fit into an everyday balanced diet without the need to restrict your intake to a set-out diet plan.

Registered dietitians can interpret scientific evidence regarding functional eating, and translate it into personal, tailored advice to help you on your health and well-being journey. Get in touch for a consultation with one of our Registered Dietitians if you would like personalised advice on how to incorporate functional eating into your everyday nutrition.

By Elsie Cole, Dietetic student, revised by Reema Patel

By Elsie Cole, Dietetic student, revised by Reema Patel

Registered Dietitian at Dietitian Fit & Co

References:

  • Crowe, K.M., and Francis, C. (2013) ‘Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Functional Foods’. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [online] 113 (8),1096-1103. available from <https://www.jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(13)00680-1/fulltext> [31 May 2022]
  • Blencowe, H., Cousens, S. Modell, B., and Lawn, J. (2010) ‘Folic acid to reduce neonatal mortality from neural tube disorders’. International Journal of Epidemiology [online] 39 (Suppl 1) 110-121. available from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20348114/> [31 May 2022]
  • Czeizel, A.E., and Dudas, I. (1992) ‘Prevention of the first occurrence of neural tube defects by peri-conceptional vitamin supplements’. The New England Journal of Medicine [online] 327 (26), 1832-1835. available from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1307234/> [31 May 2022]
  • Ellis, E. (2022) Functional Foods: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics [online] available from <https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/functional-foods> [31 May 2022]
  • Gandy, J. (2019) Manual of Dietetic Practice. 6th edn. The British Dietetic Association: West Sussex
  • International Food Information Council (2009) Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey [online] available from <https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/2009-FF-Exec-Summary.pdf> [31 May 2022]
  • Pham-Huy, L.A., He, H., and Pham-Huy, C. (2008) ‘Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health’. International Journal of Biomedical Science [online] 4 (2), 89-96. Available from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3614697/> [31 May 2022]
  • Swanson, D. Block, R. and Mousa, S.A. (2012) ‘Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life’. Advanced Nutrition [online] 3 (1), 1-7. available from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22332096/> [31 May 2022]
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