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What is Functional Nutrition?

Updated: Oct 10, 2023



In an era where chronic diseases are rampant and the one-size-fits-all approach often falls short, a lot of people are searching for a different approach. Enter functional nutrition, a dynamic and personalized approach that's changing the way we think about food, health, and well-being. But while you may have heard of holistic nutrition and dietetics, you may be wondering - what is functional nutrition?


Functional Nutrition and Functional Medicine: A Symbiotic Relationship


Functional nutrition is an offshoot of functional medicine, which is an evidence-based, holistic approach to healthcare that focuses on treating the whole person, not just isolated symptoms or diseases. While conventional medicine tends to focus on disease management, functional medicine focuses on the patient, meticulously investigating the intricate interplay of genetics, environment, gut microbiome, diet, and lifestyle factors that collectively mold an individual's health. As part of the functional medicine approach, practitioners might use tools from the Institute of Functional Medicine like the forms below to delve into a patient's medical history and symptoms to uncover the root causes of disease.


Functional Medicine Matrix and Functional Medicine Timeline, two tools provided by the Institute of Functional Medicine and used by functional medicine practitioners
IFM Functional Medicine Matrix & Timeline

We humans are literally made from the nutrients we eat, so it’s no surprise that food often emerges as the most profound contributor to health issues. Functional medicine embraces nutrition as a driving factor of health, making functional nutrition an indispensable component of functional medicine.


For instance, imagine you receive routine bloodwork revealing type 2 diabetes. In the conventional medical model, you would expect a prescription for medication to lower your blood sugar, with the assumption that more medications could be added as the disease progresses. Your diet and lifestyle may not be discussed due to time constraints and the limited emphasis on causative factors in medical education. Swift disease treatment with pharmaceutical drugs is prioritized instead.


A bottle of pharmaceutical drugs laying on its side with pills next to it

Of course, there are exceptions. A notable and growing number of conventionally trained doctors recognize the importance of nutrition and take the time to ask about diet and lifestyle. There is even a growing movement called “lifestyle medicine” that focuses on diet and lifestyle as key contributors to disease. But while engaging in a conversation about diet and lifestyle tends to be an exception in the world of conventional medicine, it is the foundation of functional medicine. A functional medicine doctor will request detailed information about your diet and lifestyle. That information can then be used by a functional nutritionist along with your taste preferences and relationship with food to create a personalized nutrition plan designed just for you.


What is functional nutrition? How does functional nutrition differ from holistic nutrition & dietetics?


Functional nutrition is an evidence-based approach that leverages food and nutrients to optimize the functioning of cells throughout your body. Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, functional nutrition treats each individual as a unique entity with distinct needs. This may sound identical to holistic nutrition, but there are defining differences. Holistic nutrition gets its name from the “whole person” approach - each person is treated as a whole, connected entity. Functional nutrition incorporates a holistic approach but combines it with a comprehensive strategy that is used to identify nutrition-related imbalances that may be causing symptoms. Practitioners of functional nutrition collect information to identify areas that may not be functioning optimally, searching for imbalances in nutrients, biochemical pathways, or the gut microbiome. The remedy, then, is a multifaceted approach that harnesses the power of diet, lifestyle changes, and nutraceuticals to bring the body back into balance and optimize health.

Practitioners of functional nutrition collect information to identify areas that may not be functioning optimally, searching for imbalances in nutrients, biochemical pathways, or the gut microbiome.

Dietitians also use food to help people manage health concerns, but they typically rely on established guidelines. For example, someone diagnosed with type 2 diabetes would be instructed to reduce their sugar and calorie intake and lose weight, but what if the patient doesn’t need to lose weight? What if the patient already eats a balanced diet, doesn’t eat enough, or is borderline underweight? This is where functional nutrition shines. By exploring the biochemical pathways and mechanisms of disease, targeted and innovative solutions can be proposed to address imbalances in each unique individual.


In order to determine the underlying causes, testing is needed. While conventional medical tests aim to identify or rule out diseases, functional nutrition strives to identify nutrient and functional imbalances that may be causing or contributing to health conditions. It's a departure from the diagnostic approach typically employed by general practitioners, but it often provides insights that can lead to solutions.


What’s it like to work with a functional nutritionist?

By exploring the biochemical pathways and mechanisms of disease, targeted and innovative solutions can be proposed to address imbalances in each unique individual.

Functional nutritionists can specialize in different areas of health and differ in their approach to testing. Some functional nutritionists partner with functional doctors and work to improve the food component of health concerns. Others may work with a patient’s doctor to request labs but operate independently. Some functional nutritionists can order additional labs that provide detailed information about each patient’s unique biochemistry so nutrition guidance can be tailored to individual needs. Still others may focus on sports nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, or eating disorders.

Whatever the specialty, a functional nutritionist will typically start with a detailed health history and nutritional assessment. Labs are used to gain insights into an individual's unique biochemical makeup. With this knowledge in hand, functional nutrition practitioners craft personalized therapeutic interventions tailored to each person’s specific needs, all with the goal of optimizing health and reducing the risk of diet and lifestyle-related diseases. This personalized approach recognizes that what works for one person may not work for another, emphasizing the importance of individualized care.


Why should I see a functional nutritionist?


Conventional medicine and dietitians provide essential services, but in a world where chronic diseases are becoming more common and the causes more complex, functional nutrition can provide a fresh perspective.


If you’re interested in a personalized, root-cause approach to health through nutrition, check out my services and click the link below to schedule a discovery call.

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