What Is Functional Nutrition? Everything You Need to Know About This Non-Diet Approach to Healthy Eating

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When it comes to our bodies, we’re all vastly different. We have different genetic makeups, we live in different environments, we make different lifestyle choices, etc. So why, some folks ask, should we all follow the same nutritional guidelines if we’re all starting in such varied places? Enter functional nutrition, a holistic approach to wellness that’s an integral part of functional medicine, which we’ll get into later. Read on to learn more about this super-tailored approach to nutrition, how it can benefit you and more.

What Is Functional Nutrition?

Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, functional nutrition is a more holistic approach to health and wellness and takes into consideration the many factors that affect each individual’s choices, from activity levels and food choices to other stress levels and preexisting conditions.

Functional nutrition differs, in a number of ways, from standard nutrition, which ascribes a set of nutrition guidelines that are meant to work for every single person, no matter what. Functional nutrition uses food as a natural medicine to help restore balance, replete nutrient deficiencies, heal the gut, and more. I'd like to talk to a certified nutritionist or dietitian for their take on whether it's nonsense or worth considering.

If we’re talking pros and cons, the obvious pros of functional nutrition are a nutrition plan tailored to your needs and a focus on overall wellness versus just weight loss. In terms of cons, employing the services of a functional nutritionist (which you can find on sites like Parsley Health) can be more expensive than opting for a plan that isn’t custom-made for you.

What Is Functional Medicine?

“[Functional medicine is] an individualized, patient-centered, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness,” says The Institute for Functional Medicine. Compared to conventional medicine, where there’s a doctor for every different organ system (cardiologists for the heart, dermatologists for the skin, etc.), functional medicine takes a look at the body as an interconnected whole. “While the conventional model excels at naming and categorizing groups of symptoms into diagnoses, it doesn’t help us uncover the root cause of the symptoms, especially when a single root cause manifests across numerous body systems,” says Alexandra Palma, MD, from Parsley Health. In other words, functional medicine takes a more holistic approach in order to focus on the triggers of poor health, whereas conventional medicine tends to focus on the consequences (i.e., symptoms) of poor health.

5 Reasons Diets Don’t Work

If you haven’t guessed, functional nutrition is very much not a diet and doesn’t attempt to prescribe a single eating plan or course of action to a whole bunch of people with different needs. As a quick reminder, here are some of the biggest reasons to be wary of any plan that markets itself—either obviously or sneakily—as a diet.

1. They can cause your metabolism to slow down

Yes, you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight (translation: you need to burn more calories than you consume) but eating too few calories can wreak havoc on your metabolism. A study published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine examined the metabolisms of people on severely low-calorie diets versus those on moderately low-calorie diets. Researchers found that subjects on the severely low-calorie diets lost weight at a slower rate. The idea is that, when you severely restrict calories, your body overcompensates by slowing down your metabolism to make the most of the calories you are consuming.

2. They can cause overeating

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know it’s not a super pleasant experience. You’re depriving yourself of calories and the food you actually want to be eating. Stressing about your diet doesn’t feel good, and it goes against your progress. Studies—like this one in the journal Appetite—have found increases in the stress hormone cortisol are linked to overeating. Additionally, increased cortisol levels can also cause your insulin levels to rise and blood sugar to drop, making you crave sugary, fatty foods.

3. They demonize food

Thinking of food as the enemy takes the pleasure out of an activity that should be pleasurable. It can also lead to disordered eating behaviors. Even diets that are marketed as healthy or wellness-focused could cause a fairly new type of eating disorder, orthorexia. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being.” Instead of labeling foods as “good” or “off-limits,” let yourself eat what you want to eat, but do so in moderation.

4. The weight loss they cause is temporary

One of the biggest problems with diets is that they aren’t a sustainable solution. It’s a familiar story: You try so-and-so trendy diet for three months and lose 15 pounds. You’re psyched. After going back to your normal eating patterns, though, the weight creeps back on. Studies have shown time and time again that weight lost via diets is very temporary. A 1996 study at Harvard Medical School, for example, surveyed 192 participants during and after a diet program. On average, members of the group lost 49 pounds during the diet program. After three years, “the mean weight was only modestly less than the group's original weight at the start of the diet. Twelve percent of the subjects maintained 75 percent of their weight loss after leaving the diet program, 57 percent maintained at least 5 percent of the loss and 40 percent gained back more than they had lost during the diet.”

5. They mess with your hunger cues

A good amount of the time you spend dieting is devoted to ignoring or suppressing your hunger. In the long run, this can make you less responsive to natural hunger cues, which in turn makes it harder for you to listen to your body and regulate your weight. Sandra Aamodt, PhD and the author of Why Diets Make Us Fattold NBC, “You become more at risk of emotional eating, eating out of boredom, and are more vulnerable to environmental cues that tell you to eat more than your body actually wants.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...