What is Functional Nutrition and How Can it Change Your Life?
Are you sick of feeling crummy? Do you feel like a sub-par version of the old you? Does your body feel much older than your numerical age?
Sadly, this is a common complaint in today’s age. BUT, the good news is that life does not have to be this way. Aging does not automatically equate to “breakdown”. Furthermore, intense physical activity over an extended period of time does not automatically equate to constant aches and fatigue.
Are you ready for a solution that is sustainable for life? The answer is a functional nutrition approach. This is a complete game-changer when it comes to prevention and reversal of chronic health symptoms. However, with so much being thrown in our faces today – elimination diets, food sensitivity testing, stool-testing etc.- how is one to know what to do?
How can this approach be streamlined?
Most importantly, how can you begin to feel better without spending a fortune?
In today’s article, we are going to explain the benefits of functional nutrition, the power of an elimination diet when followed correctly, and how to know when it’s time to seek professional guidance and additional testing.
Is a Functional Nutrition Approach Right for Me?
Functional nutrition is the ultimate puzzle piece to maintaining great health as we age, yet so many of us do not even know this concept exists.
Functional nutrition goes beyond calorie counting and the food pyramid or My Plate. There is a much greater emphasis on the quality of food and not the quantity as we once read in our textbooks.
Functional nutrition believes in the power of fresh, whole foods that actually serve a specific purpose in the human body.
Not sure what that means? Check out this basic example:
Conventional Nutrition Teaching: Broccoli is a green vegetable. It is a great choice because it is a low-calorie option that is high in fiber.
Functional Nutrition Teaching: Broccoli is an antioxidant and phytochemical-rich, cruciferous vegetable containing glucosinolates. In other words, broccoli has the power to pull toxins and remove excess hormones from the human body thereby, preventing chronic illness such as cancer and diabetes. It’s rich phytochemical and antioxidant content helps to reverse cellular damage as we age.
See what I mean? I’d like for you to think of functional nutrition as an upgraded, more intricate and scientifically advanced approach to nutrition.
The foundation of functional nutrition is that nutrition should be individualized and no two immune systems are alike.
How is this done? A skilled practitioner will study your medical history, health concerns, genetics, diet, taste preferences, lifestyle and then design a specific nutrition protocol according to that individual’s unique makeup.
Needless to say, if you find that your dietitian/nutritionist or doctor is offering the exact same food plan or dietary recommendations to each person visiting the office, you need to run in the opposite direction!
Makes complete sense, right?
In fact, knowing what I know now and seeing the success that I have seen over the years with a functional nutrition approach, I can’t believe anyone would even consider practicing any other way.
You’ve Piqued My Interest. How Can a Functional Nutrition Approach Benefit Me?
The goal of a functional nutrition approach is to maximize one’s health potential and or reverse aggravating symptoms/chronic disease. As a functional nutrition practitioner, I am looking at the human body as one unit, not a bunch of “moving pieces.”
For example, if you are suffering from fatigue, involuntary weight gain, headaches, and kidney dysfunction, I believe that all of these symptoms and conditions relate. It is not “by chance” or because of “bad genetics” that you are suffering.
For example, if you come to see your dietitian for weight issues, he or she should certainly focus on your main concern of weight, but at the same time, the practitioner should also be focusing on your whole body health whether you like it or not. This is the functional medicine/ functional nutrition strategy and honestly, the only way to truly live a life of vitality.
I’d like to provide you with an example so that you fully understand what I am trying to say.
If someone comes into my office and says, “Yes! I lost 15 lbs since meeting with you!” I am thrilled for my client, but at the same token, if I see that she is still chronically fatigued with sinus issues and joint pain, I don’t feel that I have done my job. There is still something much deeper that I missed.
Sure, genetics play a role in these situations but something had to have pulled the trigger on those “bad” genes so to speak. Diet, lifestyle, and environment are likely to blame. A skilled functional nutrition practitioner will look at all of these pieces and try to address them in the correct fashion in order to help you feel your very best.
Moral of the story: If you want to feel well from the inside out and avoid the conventional medicine/conventional nutrition approach of “one size fits all”, “let’s just skim the surface” and “let’s use medication to treat symptoms vs. getting to the root of the problem”, then a functional nutrition approach will do just that!
Why Does the Quality of My Food Matter?
Food, quite literally, is medicine.
We know that our food supply has changed dramatically (for the worse) over the past 60 years. We also know that science has repeatedly made it very clear that the food we intake has a profound effect on human health.
Food is information.
The food you eat each day acts similarly to a traffic controller, signaling every cell in your body to do its job. If you want your body to function as efficiently as possible on a cellular level (which, trust me, you do) then eating fresh, whole foods is the best way to do that. When we eat processed junk we are sending mixed messages to our cells and over time, our body no longer runs like a well oiled machine.
Real food, mapped out in a way that fits your unique needs, is NOT a diet.
This is probably the coolest part of the entire functional nutrition approach. When you finally get in the groove of eating real food and you understand how to prepare food correctly in a way that tastes great, I promise everything will change. Right now, you may be thinking, “I could never give up ____”, but when you give real food a chance and you begin to focus on the timing and quality of your meals, you will eventually feel so well, that you will have no interest in going back to your old ways of eating. Trust me, you will have the urge to slam that pizza or tray of brownies from time to time but you will likely get to the point where you feel so poorly when you do, that it’s not even worth it.
There is no “falling off the wagon” or “getting back to my diet” because functional nutrition teaches you to eat in a way that supports human health.
With that said, I have made it my number one priority and my mission in this life to inspire you while giving you the nutrition tools you need to make the most of your health while here on earth.
Keep reading to learn how to use these tools to support you on your health journey.
The Power of an Elimination Diet
Step one on your health journey should be to begin an elimination diet. This is often the foundation of a functional nutrition approach. If you are not familiar with the concept or would like a bit of guidance during the process, please review my article 7 Crucial Elimination Diet Strategies for Success.
This is always, always, always the best approach before you head into your doctor’s office. Why? Because more times than not, you can avoid prescriptions and surgeries, or at least decrease the urgency or severity of the situation by altering your diet.
There are a number of different elimination diets, how will you know which one is best for you?
For starters, keep a food journal for two weeks and start to make note of when you do not feel well. While there is not always a guarantee that you will be able to track the issue with food journaling, the chances are high that you will at least pick up on a few clues.
PRO TIP: You might find that the issue is not stemming from a particular food or food group itself, but instead from a specific chemical or component in the foods you are eating. Examples might include MSG, lactose, maltodextrin, or sucralose.
If you suspect this might be the case, take pictures of the ingredient list on the foods you are eating and start to track common denominators.
Typically, you will notice a pattern. Once you discover the culprit, remove that food or that specific substance for 4-6 weeks, let the immune system chill out a bit, and then reintroduce it.
If you feel this is confusing, difficult or just plain ineffective, this is the time to schedule a visit with a dietitian who is skilled in elimination diets and food sensitivities. He or she will help you choose an elimination diet that is most relevant to your future health goals and current symptoms.
If for some reason this is not within your reach- from a financial standpoint, geographical standpoint etc. I would recommend that you initiate a standard elimination diet, which focuses on the removal of the top 8 allergens as these tend to be the most offensive to the human immune system. What are these foods? Wheat, dairy, egg, corn, soy, pork, shellfish, and peanuts.
Why these foods? They are the most heavily manufactured foods and they are the foods most commonly consumed. If you pay very close attention, you will find that you are consuming at least a third of this list at every single meal, especially those of you who do not rotate your food choices!
Sounds intense, I know, but once you get the hang of it and finally figure which foods are considered safe and which restaurants can accommodate your dietary needs, the process is not nearly as challenging.
After all is said and done with a properly orchestrated elimination diet, you should notice relief. Some individuals feel incredible, as if they never had any health issues to begin with while others feel a marginal sense of relief. A very select few will feel absolutely no difference and in that case, it may be time to dive into food sensitivity testing.
What is Food Sensitivity Testing?
Food sensitivity testing can be extremely helpful for those experiencing chronic symptoms. We will not dive too deep into testing in today’s article as we have a separate post that serves as an entire guide to food sensitivity symptoms and testing.
However, there are two concepts I would like for you to understand: What food sensitivity testing does and why it will rarely ever be the complete solution to your health problems.
While an elimination diet will always be the gold standard because your body knows best, food sensitivity testing can be helpful if you are beyond that point in the game. The ideal situation would be to combine the two in order to determine the most clues.
Food sensitivity testing is a way to have a more comprehensive look at what is going on as several of these tests can test for food chemicals in addition to types of food and food families.
Most companies use a blood test to measure your immune response to these specific foods or chemicals. A report is then printed out showing your level of reaction to each food and a qualified practitioner will help you interpret the results and explain next steps in terms of diet change.
(Friendly reminder: food allergies, food sensitivities and food intolerance are three separate issues. If you’d like a little refresher, check out our post that explains the difference between the three).
Alright, now I’d like to provide you with a little piece of advice that most health care practitioners will not share with you. I would not say that this is intentional neglect, but more of the fact that they do not have enough experience in the area of food sensitivities and chronic illness.
Sure, I’ve certainly witnessed what I would call “food miracles” where we discovered that one or two specific foods or specific chemicals in a food was causing every single symptom for that person but unfortunately, that is not usually the case.
More times than not, elimination diets and food sensitivity testing is just another way to unload a portion of the immune system “bucket” that has over-flown. Hence why so many individuals experience some form of immediate relief but do not experience complete relief from their medical condition.
Wondering why this occurs? More times than not, the lack of relief is a result of an underlying condition that has not been treated. These conditions can be anything from a dormant viral condition to an environmental exposure issue.
I’ve seen many situations where extreme stress in someone’s life triggered a funky viral infection from the past to resurface.
I’ve seen patients who were unknowingly bitten by a tick as they were pulling them off their family pet but never experienced the classic bulls-eye rash that you hear about in textbooks. No surprise, the infection went years untreated.
I recently saw a young girl who had 12 vaccines over a 30 day period in order to complete a missionary trip in Africa and suddenly became ill. Her Functional Medicine Physician believes that she was not able to metabolize the heavy metals and preservatives and it continues to wreak havoc on her system.
I’ve seen numerous patients who had silver mercury fillings leaking in their mouth and suffered the consequences for years. I’ve seen patients who unknowingly were drinking tap water full of lead for many years.
The list goes on and on which is why its so important to note that sometimes this is both the reason why someone’s immune system begins to break down in the first place and also why taking medication to address symptoms vs. treating not the root cause is why many individuals are chronically ill for years and years.
If any of this rings a bell and you feel you are not receiving the help that you need, I would strongly consider visiting ifm.org in order to find a qualified Functional Medicine Physician in your area.
Benefits of Nutrient Deficiency Testing
Last but not least, I’d like to briefly mention the benefits of nutrient deficiency testing.
Let’s say that you feel poorly, but your symptoms are not as extreme as something like chronic reflux or chronic joint pain. Maybe your issue(s) is more sporadic and only comes at certain times of the day and your meals do not seem to have an impact. While every individual is different, food sensitivity testing is most beneficial when your symptoms never seem to let up or they tend to occur after eating.
There are always exceptions to the rule but generally speaking, nutrient deficiencies tend to be more inconsistent and usually more subtle such as the occasional muscle cramp, eye twitch, or cracked lips.
Also, those who eat a poorly balanced diet may benefit more from nutrient deficiency testing FIRST over food sensitivity testing as sometimes feeling like junk can be attributed to a lack of vitamins, minerals, amino acids etc.
And of course in the most extreme of health conditions, the individual can benefit from both tests.
Functional Nutrition is the Answer for Everyone
At the end of the day, you will save yourself so much time and money plowing through the above steps first before going to see your doctor, ESPECIALLY if it is a doctor who practices conventional medicine.
It does not matter how big or how small your health concern(s) might be, a functional nutrition approach can benefit everyone.
Sadly, there are still many hhealthcarepractitioners out there who do not believe that food has any relationship to chronic disease. However, on the plus side, I will say that I am teaming with more and more physicians each day who do in fact believe that food is medicine!
For those of you who know me, you know I always keep it real. After seeing thousands of patients on a one-on-one basis, I can tell you that those who did not take the necessary steps listed above ended up spending significantly more money on their health. Docs ordered more testing for these patients and significantly more supplements and medications were prescribed. I promise you, so much of this can be prevented if you make an effort to tackle some of the symptoms on your own before going to see a practitioner.
It is never, ever too late to start feeling better and take charge of your health!
Have you ever that you were passed around from practitioner to practitioner with no answers? Did you find that a functional nutrition approach was beneficial? Please share your experience and thoughts below!