• Jasmine Blake Hollywood, MS, HHP

What is Functional Nutrition?

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

The Problem

A common problem in the healthcare field is that people don't know what functional nutrition is. It is imperative that people have a general understanding of the meaning this way they can decided whether this is the health option they would like to pursue. In today's world, many people actually want to know what functional nutrition is. So, let's explain exactly what functional nutrition is, and how can it support preventative care and healing.

What is the difference between conventional medicine and functional medicine?

Conventional practitioners diagnose disease and prescribe medication. Functional medicine looks at the root cause for disease and aims to heal these causes through lifestyle modifications.

Conventional Medicine

Conventional medicine aims to diagnose and give medication to people who do not fit into a certain window of diagnostic criteria.

Some refer to a window of diagnostic criteria as a reference range. How doctors measure this window, is by using blood labs to assess certain reference range levels of biochemicals in a persons blood (e.g. calcium, protein, cholesterol, iron). When a person's biochemistry panel is high or low, their body is technically in a malfunctioning state. When malfunctioning, a person will exhibit signs and symptoms. Some signs and symptoms are considered silent and unnoticeable. Doctors will aim to reduce the signs and symptoms, and they manage these symptoms until a person will get better and fits back into the reference range.

Surgeon doctors may need to remove certain organ systems of a body. This reason is to give a person more time to live due to damage done to the organ. Often a surgeon will repair a deformity or repair an injury, or help with a disease condition. This is a practice of conventional medicine. However, once an organ is removed, it is very difficult to replace it. A body may reject a new organ, or organ be just remain missing.

Each doctor has a different specialty area that they'll look at, and if the patient is out of their scope of practice, they will have to send them to an appropriate specialist to care for their issue or disease condition. For example, an endocrinologist will look at people with diabetes or thyroid. An immunologist will look at people with viral infections, bacterial infections, or immune problems. A cardiologist will look at people with heart disease, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Therefore, if a patient is seeing one doctor and stumble onto a problem needing correcting, that doctor may have to refer them out.

Conventional practitioners use a model that allows treatments to go through a series of scientific tests. If these challenges are met, then these treatments will be allowed to be used on all of the population in practice. Basically, since these treatments worked effectively 98% of the time, then most likely it'll work for 98% of the population. They have certain treatments they are to use for certain conditions. The data they use is imperative in treating a specific disease state. Conventional practitioners prescribe medication and manage the patient from thereon out.

Functional Medicine

Functional Medicine determines how and why illness or disease occurs.

Functional medicine practitioners aim to restore a person's health by looking into the root causes of their disease. Their scope of practice allows them to look into many areas of the body (instead of only one area), which allows them to assess all of the systems that may contribute to the specific problem (e.g. thyroid disease). They look at a person individually and create a treatment plan based on data accumulated from intake forms. The data they use from scientific tests helps them to identify root causes.

This model is patient-centered and personalized. The practitioner respects autonomy and tries to leverage with the patient to come to an agreed treatment plan that will bring the patient the quality of life they need and give the practitioner the results they need. Patient-centered practice is about listening, while informing. As well, it is about patient preferences and values.

Functional practitioners will actually look at a patients genetic history, lifestyle history, personality and psychological history, along with diet history, family history, and many other areas. They use this data to come up with an individualized plan for better patient outcomes. They look at the whole body instead of one organ system and work around the individual's life. They aim to treat signs and symptoms naturally or holistically to reduce medications that could be causing harm to organ systems, and ultimately aim to reverse disease.

What is Functional Nutrition?

Functional Nutrition is a lot like functional medicine, except nutritionists do not focus on diagnosing diseases.

Functional nutrition emphasizes on eating healthily and tailoring to your dietary needs. It area of practice looks into meal planning, timing, and preparation. Functional nutrition also looks into types and kinds of foods eaten, how and when these foods are eaten, and why they are eaten. These practitioners look to see if these foods may be causing problems, amongst other important factors of foods.

Functional nutrition is personalized to a persons genetics, lifestyle, environment, and health concerns. Its focus is on diagnosing nutritional deficits and excesses, and not diseases. Functional nutrition also offers effective strategies and tools to improve a persons health, and sometimes nutritionists do that by including tools like:

  • weekly food and shopping schedules

  • recipes

  • recommendations about cooking and food storage methods

  • steps to achieve mindful eating

Clinical Nutritionists

Clinical nutritionists practice functional nutrition. They use a method called medical nutrition therapy (MNT) to help prevent diseases and conditions from forming and reduce the risk of disease. Sometimes they use MNT to treat diseases alongside a persons physician. Clinical nutritionists start with a standard of care and then add new tools and strategies from evidence-based research to help identify and address the root cause of your disease through nutritional imbalances.

The treatment clinical nutritionists give is through diet and lifestyle protocols and this changes for each person individually. This type of therapy is about finding the right way to eat and varies for each person on an individual basis. Clinical nutritionists use food to maximize the potential for health to ultimately reduce inflammation, repair the body’s way of functioning, and reverse disease.

Through functional nutrition, clinical nutritionists use the motto of "there is no perfect diet; and no right way for every person to eat."

What is a nutritional fingerprint?

Another problem is that many people aren’t too sure about what their nutritional fingerprint is and how it relates to their lives as individuals. People have their own bio-individual fingerprint just like a regular finger, and this is even case for twins. Meaning, no one person's body functions the same as another persons body. We're all different no matter how similar our lives seem. A person may want to eat like their friend, brother, favorite celebrity. The fact is their body will take that way of eating completely different from the other person. A nutritional fingerprint means no two people can have the same dietary habits with the same outcome.

Conditions are another topic to discuss when trying to understand nutritional fingerprints. One condition in one person may be caused by a variety of reasons adding up to the condition. Also many different causes in different people, all presenting with something different, can lead to each of them having the same condition. Also, a group of people that have all had the exact same causing factor may all present with different conditions. Clinical nutritionists help each person figure out what patterns of eating and lifestyle changes must be implemented to help manage their conditions.

Finding out our nutritional fingerprints is not finding a specific diet. For example, diets like Atkins, GAPS, or Paleo is not the answer to the condition. Although, these diets do improve conditions, some more extreme than others. When looking at functional nutrition, finding our nutritional fingerprint is a lifestyle change. We can use specific diets to get us started, then mold these diets into our lives to make a permanent change. For example, "I don't do the GAPS diet (6 weeks, then stop), I practice the GAPS lifestyle (daily, for life)."

It is good to remember that people have different genetic backgrounds, different preferences, and different lives, thus, it is hard to figure out our food and dietary patterns. Once a person figures it out, it is their job to play by their body's rules, their body’s law of nature, and they should continue to do so from thereon out. Everyone all wants to be healthy, but most people haven’t figured out just how to make food and dietary patterns serve that goal.

Functional nutrition practitioners they help people understand their individual fingerprint and implement personalized food plans. When working with these types of practitioners people have access to a wealth of information, and are supplied additional information to educate and support them in adopting their new lifestyles, while learning new approaches to food and nutrition. Furthermore, clinical nutritionists also determine whether other interventions are needed.