What Are Functional Foods? Definition, Benefits and Uses - Dr. Axe

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Functional Foods Benefits & How to Add Them to Your Diet


Functional foods - Dr. Axe

According to a 2002 article published in the Journal of Nutrition, “Functional foods represent one of the most intensively investigated and widely promoted areas in the food and nutrition sciences today.” That’s because a diet that includes plenty of functional foods is one of the best protectors against common chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and stroke.

Functional foods can either be whole, fortified, enriched or enhanced, but most health experts argue that unprocessed functional foods are the kind that we should focus on.

What are considered functional groups of foods? Functional foods range from berries to fish, but they all provide therapeutic benefits and therefore are often considered “superfoods.” Examples of functional foods that you may already include in your diet include vegetables, fruit, seeds, herbs, spices and teas.

What Are Functional Foods?

While there is no standard way to define functional foods or an official functional foods definition, most consider functional foods to be foods that provide health benefits beyond their “basic nutrients” — meaning micronutrients and macronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, carbs, fat and protein.

Functional foods provide these essential nutrients, but they also contain additional and often unique, protective compounds that most other foods do not. These include as omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, probiotics and antioxidants. Some functional foods are also bred with the intention of improving their nutrient content or appearance. This is the case with some vegetables and fruits.


What are some examples of functional foods? The majority of functional foods are plants, such as vegetables, fruits like berries, herbs and spices. However, this does not mean you need to be a vegan/vegetarian to benefit from functional foods. Certain foods that are sourced from animals, including fatty fish like salmon and organ meats like chicken or beef liver, can also be considered functional foods due to their high nutrient content. 

Functional Foods vs. Nutraceuticals

Enriched foods and beverages are sometimes referred to as nutraceuticals. This term that is also used by some to describe functional foods.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does no regulate use of the term “functional food.” That means it can be hard to tell functional foods apart from other food products, especially since misleading health claims are often slapped on highly processed foods.

Since the 1990s, health-promoting products have become a trend as consumers have become more conscious of the effects that dietary choices have on their health. The concept of functional foods was first developed in Japan in the 1980s when health organizations began looking for ways to support the well-being of the nation’s aging population.

Not all foods and drinks that are available today claiming to be “functional foods” have benefits that are supported by data. Today, fortified and enriched food products are huge moneymakers for food manufacturers. It’s now common practice to add nutrients to processed foods in hopes of making them more appealing to consumers who are trying to eat healthier by increasing their nutrient intake. However, enriched/fortified foods are not the same thing as natural functional foods, which contain nutrients that processed foods do not.

What’s the key difference between functional foods and nutraceuticals? Examples of nutraceuticals include many types of products made with cereal grains, juices and meal replacement shakes. As opposed to nutraceuticals, real functional foods do not need to be enriched because they are “whole foods” that already possess protective phytonutrients, antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.

Related: How Maqui Berry Benefits the Gut, Heart, Skin & Eyes

Health Benefits

Functional foods benefits include:

  • Providing antioxidants (like carotenoids, flavonoids, lycopene, anthocyanin and polyphenols) that fight free radical damage.
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Aiding in disease prevention, such as reducing the risk for cardiovascular diseases, neurological conditions, depression or cancer.
  • Supporting gut health and therefore enhancing the immune system.
  • Providing live microbial cultures, also called probiotic bacteria.
  • Providing “prebiotics” that help feed probiotics.
  • Reducing pathogenic bacteria and microbes.

How can functional foods help fight disease? Each functional food works a bit differently, depending on the specific compounds it contains. Some of the ways that functional foods offer protection against illnesses include:

  • Counteracting the negative effects of stress, such as by offering B vitamins, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Protecting the brain from free radical damage and supporting cognitive/mental health.
  • Supporting detoxification and digestive health.
  • Balancing cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as regulating heartbeats.
  • Aiding in nutrient absorption.
  • Helping build and maintain bone mass, such as by lowering acidity and helping alkalize the body.
  • Managing blood sugar levels, such as by providing fiber and anti-inflammatory compounds.
  • Helping with weight management and obesity prevention.

Best Functional Foods

What are examples of functional foods that just about everyone could benefit from? Take a look at this top functional foods list:

  1. High-antioxidant foodsThese include a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, berries of all sorts (such as goji, acai, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, etc.), oranges, papaya, bell peppers, cruciferous veggies like broccoli or Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc. These are your best source of antioxidants (often which provide these foods with their colors) that support cellular health and fight oxidative stress.
  2. Green foods — Grasses and sea vegetables, such as spirulina, chlorella, wheatgrass, barley grass and others, are full of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, some of which can be hard to obtain from other plant foods.
  3. High-fiber foodsFiber is important for digestive/gut health, heart health and appetite regulation. It can be found in vegetables, fresh fruits, coconut, avocado, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds
  4. Probiotic foods These include fermented/cultured foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and cultured veggies like sauerkraut and kimchi. Probiotics have numerous roles, including protecting the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, helping with absorption of nutrients, preventing common digestive issues and fighting infections.
  5. Prebiotic foods — Prebiotics are carbohydrates/fibers that resist digestion and help “feed” probiotics in the gut. Examples of foods that function as prebiotics include leeks, onions, garlic, bananas, potatoes, asparagus, artichokes, beans, grains like oatmeal and many other plant foods. Eating raw plant foods is one of the best ways to obtain more prebiotics, as well as digestive enzymes that support nutrient absorption.
  6. Omega-3 foods Omega-3s may help lower your risk of heart disease, depression, joint pain and more. Plus they support cognitive/brain function. The best way to obtain omega-3s is to eat wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, halibut, etc., plus walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds.
  7. Nuts and seeds — Regularly eating nuts/seeds is a good way to obtain healthy fats and fiber, protect your heart and brain, and keep hunger in check since they are satiating. Some of the best choices include almonds, cashews, flax, chia, hemp, walnuts, etc.
  8. Teas, herbs and spices — Green tea, black tea, turmeric, ginger, parsley, cinnamon, etc., are all beneficial due to their antioxidant content. Fresh herbs/spices help flavor meals without adding extra calories. They also have anti-inflammatory and often antimicrobial properties. Red wine, dark chocolate/cocoa and coffee can even be considered functional foods due to their phytonutrients.
  9. Bone broth — Bone broth is rich in amino acids (which form proteins) like glycine, arginine and proline; vitamins and minerals; collagen; electrolytes; and even antioxidants like glucosamine.

How to Your Diet

  • Base your diet around plants. In order to get enough fiber, antioxidants and electrolytes from your diet, emphasize plant foods over animal products. Of course, a balanced diet includes adequate amounts of quality protein and healthy fats (see below), but ideally half of your plate or more at every meal should be fresh plant foods.
  • Choose the right types of fats. Ditch inflammatory “bad fats” (trans fats and refined vegetable oils, including soybean oil, canola oil, safflower and sunflower oil) for healthy fats and oils like virgin coconut oil, real olive oil, avocado oil or grass-fed butter/ghee.
  • Focus on quality animal products. If you eat a lot of animal proteins (meat, poultry, eggs, fish, diary), be sure to purchase grass-fed or pasture-raised, cage-free and wild-caught foods. These tend to be higher in nutrients like omega-3s and other fatty acids, plus less likely to contain additives, hormones, etc.
  • Don’t fill up on unhealthy foods. An advantage of including lots of functional foods in your diet is that it helps you “crowd out” less healthy options. Lower the amount of added sugar in your diet by avoiding sweetened dairy products, condiments and beverages. Check foods labels carefully to make sure you don’t consume added sugar, which goes by many different names, such as fructose, dextrose, syrups, etc. Also stick to 100 percent whole grains, rather than having lots of products made with processed grain flours.

Avoid these foods/food groups as much as possible in order to support gut health and keep inflammation under control:

  • Corn and soybean oils
  • Pasteurized, conventional dairy
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Conventional meat
  • Sugars of all kinds
  • Trans fats
  • Processed grains

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