By now most people have heard of functional foods, but might not understand what the term means – or which are the best functional foods to eat and why. 3027
Functional foods are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond the nutrition they provide. They are considered by those who advocate them as a way of preventing illness and maintaining optimal health and nutrition throughout your lifetime.
Most of us have heard the phrase, “We are what we eat,” but proponents of functional foods argue that certain foods, or elements within those foods, can actually help reduce the risk of disease. 3229
In this article, you will discover a range of functional foods that are believed to help ward off illness and keep you in peak condition well into your senior years. First, let’s look at some of the most helpful functional foods, and their benefits. 3230
Types of functional food
Many products on the supermarket shelves claim to be healthy for us in some way, but the truth is that most of these are unsubstantiated claims. If we examine the actual definition of a functional food, we can see why. 3231
The idea of functional foods was first proposed in 2011. In 2015, the Functional Food Center (FFC) adopted a new definition of functional food, which it defined as “natural or processed foods that contain known or unknown biologically-active compounds; the foods, in defined, effective, and non-toxic amounts, provided a clinically proven and documented health benefits for the prevention, management, or treatment of chronic diseases“. 3232
Most of the foods in the stores are not clinically proven and documented with detailed research that supports their health benefits in relation to chronic diseases. In many cases, there is also no “defined amount” that is effective and known to be non-toxic, again because the research is lacking. 3233
Having said that, decades of research have pointed to certain foods having definite health benefits.
Examples may include natural foods; fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods; and dietary supplements.
Let’s look at natural foods first.
Natural Functional Foods
There are quite a number of natural functional foods, but one of the most familiar and cheap to eat is oatmeal.
Oatmeal and oat bran contain soluble fiber – that is, fiber that dissolves in water, which aids the digestion and can help you feel full. It is a whole grain full of B vitamins, which the body can’t store and needs a steady supply of. Because oatmeal is rich in fiber, it can also help relieve constipation naturally. 3234
It is naturally gluten free and can be used in a range of recipes, from soups and stews to desserts like muffins and cookies. It is easy to make, requiring only water or perhaps a little milk every morning, for a simple hot breakfast high in fiber and low in calories. The only unhealthy oatmeal is the instant packaged kind, since it has all sorts of salt, sugar and other items added. When consuming functional foods, aim to eat them in as natural a form as possible.
The best health news about oatmeal is that it has been shown in several studies to help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels naturally when eaten as part of a balanced diet; therefore, it is a heart-healthy way to start your day. With oatmeal so cheap, why waste money on anything other than the real whole grain?
The old proverb, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” could be considered the first endorsement for functional foods. The apple offers a range of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and potassium. It is also rich in fiber and weighs in at only 90 calories for a small one. Certain types of apple (such as the Gala) are also high in antioxidants, which can help reduce the chance of disease by reducing the wear and tear of aging on our bodies – a process called oxidative stress.
Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C and the cancer-fighting phytochemical lycopene, thought to ward off prostate cancer in men. They are also rich in vitamin A and magnesium. What could be tastier than whole wheat pasta with homemade sauce made from fresh tomatoes with a dash of heart-healthy olive oil?
Sweet potatoes, despite their name, have fewer carbs than white potatoes. One small sweet potato without butter and marshmallows on top has around 115 calories and 26 grams of carbs. It has more than 360% of your daily allowance of vitamin A.
Vitamin A is essential for bone growth and the health of your immune system so you can ward off disease. It also helps the skin and mucous membranes repel bacteria and viruses more effectively. It is essential for healthy vision and can help slow the decline in vision that comes with aging.
Sweet potatoes also contain magnesium, B6, iron, C and calcium. They contain fiber as well, making them a filling low calorie food if eaten plain. All it takes is five minutes in the microwave.
These are just a few examples of natural functional foods that can improve your health as part of a balanced diet.
Next, let’s look at fortified functional foods.
The FDA regulates so-called fortified foods – that is, foods which have added nutrients in order to try to increase their health benefits. For example, we all know that orange juice is rich in Vitamin C naturally. Fortified versions on the market add elements that are thought to be beneficial to one’s overall health.
One common example is orange juice that’s been fortified with calcium in order to promote bone health and help ward off osteoporosis, a thinning of the bones that occurs as we age. Around 80% of osteoporosis patients are women, so they might also add dairy to their diet in the form of skim milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Calcium and vitamin D are two essential components of healthy bones, so the theory runs that the more you have in your diet, the more likely you are to ward off disease.
However, that is not entirely true. It’s best to get your nutrition from natural sources, not supplements. In addition, vitamin D is a natural hormone produce by our body when we go outside into the sunlight. Around 15 minutes in the sun per day (with sunscreen on, of course), can give you your full daily alowance of D.
Rich natural sources of calcium include:
- Dark leafy greens
- Low fat cheese
- Low fat milk and yogurt
- Bok choy (a kind of Chinese cabbage)
- Tofu (soy protein)
- Green beans
Since all of these food carry other health benefits, it is up to you to decide whether or not it is worth it to buy the more expensive fortified juice, for example.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Some orange juices are labelled heart-healthy. The strong taste of the juice can disguise a range of additives, including fish oil. You’ve probably heard of Omega-3 fatty acids, or Omega-3, and wondered what all the fuss is about.
There are three principal types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Alphalinolenic acid (ALA)
EPA and DHA are found only in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, and in fish oil supplements. They can reduce the tendency for blood to clot, decrease the risk of abnormal heart rhythms, and lower triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are another component of your cholesterol.
The benefits of ALA are unclear; however, any change to healthy fats and good protein from non-red meat sources is a step in the right direction. ALA is found in flaxseed and walnuts.
The fish will give you valuable protein as well, while being low in calories and fat compared with red meat. Salmon is highly recommended as part of a balanced diet.
Flaxseed and walnuts are also high in fiber. Studies have shown that eating as few as 8 walnuts per day can significantly improve cholesterol levels. Eating around 10 almonds per day has been shown to lower cholesterol by 4%; eating 20 can lower it naturally by as much as 9%.
Any woman of childbearing age has heard of folate, also commonly referred to as folic acid. It is Vitamin B9 in the range of B vitamins. But can’t be stored in the body because it is water soluble. Stress, smoking and elimination of bodily waste every day and an unbalanced diet mean some people suffer from a B vitamin deficiency.
Folic acid is important because it has been found to help reduce the risk of certain birth defects. Women who wish to become pregnant should start taking a folic acid supplement at least three months before conceiving and continue to take the doses recommended by their doctor throughout the pregnancy.
There are a growing number of functional foods fortified with folate, but again, they might not be worth the extra cost when it is so easy to get folic acid in its natural form. Main sources include:
- Leafy greens
- Green vegetables
- Legumes such as lentils and lima beans
You’re sure to find at least a couple of items on this list that you will enjoy.
Can’t you get the same effect from just taking vitamins or supplements? we hear you ask. Let’s deal with this issue in the next section.
As you can see from the above examples, functional foods carry a range of health benefits and are often low in calories. They offer the benefits too of being tasty and filling.
Unfortunately, far too many people turn to pills in the hope that they can improve their health. In fact, a growing number of studies have shown that those who take vitamins and high levels of supplements are often at greater risk of health issues and even death than those who do not.
Another major concern in relation to dietary supplements is that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they are neither a food nor a drug. This means they can have a range of ingredients in them that are not helpful and could even be harmful. There is also little regulation in terms of country of origin of the supplements, or the ingredients in them.
Tests have been made to determine whether the quantity of so-called active ingredients stated on the label matched what was inside the actual product. Ninety percent of them did not match. Of the ones that did not match, most of them had significantly less than the declared amount.
In about 7% of cases, however, there was more. This could potentially lead to a dangerous overdose – especially for herbs such as St. John’s wort, used for mood disorders.
Another serious concern is the interactions between herbs and supplements and any over-the-counter and prescription drugs the person might be taking. Even vitamins can be dangerous depending on one’s health conditions and the medications being taken for it.
Functional foods should be just that – foods which promote health and help reduce the risk of disease, not lots of (expensive) pills with little regulation or hard science to back them. There are a few exceptions where supplements can help, such as folic acid in pregnancy. But, if the claims made by the product sound too good to be true, they probably are.
Choosing the right functional foods
Because food is now an industry, a lot of marketing hype surrounds certain foods, especially ones that are being launched on the market.
Watch Out for Food Fads
Food fads come and go, and many can be a waste of money due to unsubstantiated health claims. For example, coconut water became all the craze a couple of years ago, but with no evidence to back it up.
Vitamin water sales are booming. As we have said, only certain vitamins can be stored in the body, so the money you are spending on these expensive products is literally going down the toilet when you eliminate your bodily waste.
Coconut oil has also become a huge fad of late. The truth is it has large amounts of saturated fats, similar to the fats found in red meat, so it is certainly not as healthy for you as olive or canola oil. In addition, it has a strong taste that overpowers many recipes unless you buy the highly processed unscented kind.
A far better choice for most people is soy protein, such as that found in tofu and soy milk. All animal-based protein has cholesterol, while plant based proteins such as soy do not. Tofu is a good substitute for meat and poultry and can be used in a range of dishes such as soups, stews and stir fries. Silken tofu and soy milk, cheese and yogurt are excellent substitutes for dairy products.
The Benefits of Soy
Soy is thought to have two main active components, isoflavones and phytoestrogens. The isoflavones are heart healthy. The phytoestrogens promote healthy bones and mental function. They have also been shown to relieve the more uncomfortable symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and night sweats.
A balanced diet is the best way to maintain optimal health and nutrition. When in doubt, eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables each day, and see what a difference it can make to your health.
If you’ve ever seen a yogurt ad boasting about live cultures, you will have a pretty good idea of what probiotics are. The theory is that they are good for the digestion for a number of reasons. Firstly, the bacteria in our digestive tract, commonly referred to as gut flora, help break down the food we eat into their nutritional components and the waste products we excrete. The healthier our gut, the more efficiently we can access the nutrition from the foods we eat, including functional foods.
The second reason is one of balance. If we take antibiotics, they kill off both bad and useful bacteria. The theory behind probiotics is to restore balance and provide healthy bacteria once more.
Choose yogurt with active cultures, such as Greek-style 0% fat plain or vanilla yogurt. It is rich and creamy and can take the place of a more high-calorie dessert if you add a bit of your own fresh fruit to it.
Most people have heard of probiotics, but not prebiotics. Simply put, prebiotics are the nutrients and food components that the healthy bacteria from the probiotics need to eat in order to survive and thrive. Luckily, many of these foods are inexpensive and easy to enjoy. They include:
- Whole wheat foods such as bread and pasta
Those with celiac disease should eat certified gluten-free wheat-based products. A good stir-fry with noodles and a cooked banana for dessert once a week will be more than enough to help keep your gut healthy.
Leafy greens contain a range of phytochemicals, including carotenoids, sulforaphanes, apigenin, lutein and zeaxanthin. Carotenoids help block carcinogens from entering cells, so they can help prevent cancer. Sulforaphanes and apigenin are both heart-healthy. Lutein helps protect eyesight as a person ages. You will often see senior vitamins with lutein as an added ingredient. Zeaxanthin enhances the immune system to help ward off disease.
The greens highest in these phytochemicals include:
- Collard greens
They are all high in taste and low in calories. They can also help fill you up. Spinach is considered a “super food“, along with broccoli, because they are so nutrient-dense. Discover a range of ways to work them into your diet, such as spinach salad with cranberries, broccoli in a stir fry, broccoli slaw, and more. Kale leaves can be sprayed lightly with cooking spray and baked for 10 minutes at 375 degrees F for a crisp and healthy snack that will cost a fraction of all the kale products currently on the market.
If you and the children really can’t stomach so many vegetables, consider smuggling them into some healthy green smoothies. An apple or banana with some soy milk can usually disguise the taste of most of these vegetables. So can berries such as blueberries, which are rich in antioxidants as well.
Grape Juice and Red Wine
These are both thought to be heart healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet full of natural foods in small quantities, some fish, and only a small amount of red meat. The active ingredient in the grapes, resveratrol, is thought to boost HDL cholesterol. If you don’t drink alcohol, stick to grape juice. If you do drink alcohol, you can have two ounces of red wine with your dinner each night.
All nuts are heart-healthy with the exception of macadamia nuts, which are high in saturated fat. But since they are so expensive, look for cheaper nut varieties such as almonds and walnuts. Both lower cholesterol and help you feel full fast. They are perfect as snacks and in salads to add some extra crunch. They are also high in fiber. Just be sure to choose raw nuts with no salt and measure out portions using a kitchen scale. In this way you will be able to practice portion control and not be in danger of over-eating because you mindlessly chow down on the entire bag in front of the TV.
These help reduce aging and fight disease. Great sources include berries, green tea, air-popped popcorn, red kidney beans, cranberries, dried plums, and apples. Many foods are now fortified with green tea, but watch out – you may be getting more caffeine that you would wish as a result.
Some functional foods are helpful, while others are nothing but hype. Do your research and you should be able to eat better than ever before for less.
Good nutrition is always a fine balancing act, made more complicated by food industry hype and confusing or misleading labels and messages about what is and isn’t good for us. We hope this article has encouraged you to make smarter decisions about what you shop for and eat, and how you can ward off illness without spending a fortune at the supermarket every week.
Smarter self-care these days is all about disease prevention. Functional foods can protect against many of the conditions that are the result of the aging process, such as arthritis, osteoporosis and heart disease. In some cases, they can even help prevent cancer.
If you want to try functional foods, choose wisely. Also keep in mind that while functional foods may help promote wellness, they can’t make up for generally poor eating habits. Try to eat a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables every day, and healthy fats from olive oil and nuts, and see what a difference it can make to your health.