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What is Functional Nutrition?

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

You may have seen the term "Functional Nutrition"... but how is it different than traditional nutrition coaching?

The core of Functional Nutrition Therapy (FNT) is the use of food as medicine to prevent, improve, or reverse a health condition. The body requires essential nutrients to function at its best. When the body does not receive sufficient amounts of all essential nutrients and it is exposed to multiple daily stressors and toxins, then health problems begin to occur.

How do I know if nutrition imbalances are contributing to my health problem?

First, think about how you feel and function. You know your own body the best. How is your energy level? Do you have good mental focus and clarity? Are you able to exercise and be active without pain or fatigue? Is your digestive function normal?

The word “normal” is very subjective. Many people are walking around with low energy, brain fog, and digestive problems like gas, bloating and constipation thinking that this is their “normal.” This is NOT normal, and these problems can be improved with proper nutrition.

There are three general ways to evaluate for nutritional deficiencies:

1. Nutrition Focused Physical Exam

You may begin to notice physical changes that could be nutrition-related, such as hair loss or changes in your skin (pale, dry, rashes, etc.). A trained healthcare practitioner may see physical indicators of nutrient deficiencies such as white spots or lines on the fingernails, dark circles under the eyes, cracks in the corners of the mouth, or white spots on the tongue. All of these indicate potential nutrient imbalance and should be confirmed with further testing.

2. Dietary Intake Evaluation

An inexpensive noninvasive method to determine if nutrient deficiencies or imbalances may be present is a comprehensive dietary intake evaluation by a trained healthcare professional. This is where the client records everything he or she consumes for 3-7 days and the practitioner evaluates the nutritional content of the intake, including macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Other nutritional factors that may be evaluated include fiber, sugar, omega-3 fatty acids, saturated fat, calories, and fruit and vegetable intake for phytonutrient and antioxidant evaluation.

While this is valuable data, the practitioner must also take into account that an individual may have greater needs for a particular nutrient, which may be detected in a lab test (either conventional or functional lab test). For example, if a person had an exposure to mold in a home or building and demonstrated mold toxicity by a lab test, then the need for magnesium may be higher than average. This is because the RDI (Recommended Dietary Intake) for magnesium covers basic metabolic functions of magnesium but not the additional magnesium that is being used in the body’s natural detoxification pathway to get rid of the mold accumulation. A Functional Nutritionist is trained to identify a person’s individual nutrient needs.

3. Lab Tests – Conventional Labs and Functional Labs

A conventional lab test may be used to detect deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as vitamin D and iron. However, conventional lab tests are not the best measure for other nutrients, such as vitamin B12, folate, or magnesium.

Functional lab tests, such as a urinary Organic Acid Test (OAT) assessing metabolic pathways, may provide more accurate information on nutrient requirements because it is looking at how nutrients are being used in the body. For example, a blood test measuring vitamin B12 can show serum B12 in the “normal range,” but the person may not be getting enough B12 into the cells. Measuring serum B12 does not tell us if there is a true deficiency at the tissue level. An organic acid test measuring Methylmalonic Acid (MMA) is a more sensitive measure of vitamin B12 deficiency. When MMA levels are increased, it indicates that vitamin B12 is not being utilized in a critical metabolic pathway and more vitamin B12 is needed.

What is it like to work with a Functional Nutritionist?

You should first choose a qualified healthcare professional who has specialized training in Functional Nutrition Therapy. This would include formal training from an accredited university and a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in dietetics or nutrition science. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN or RD) with additional training, and certification preferred in Functional Nutrition Therapy would be considered the most specialized in this area. Beware of the self-taught nutritionists who seek their education through general nutrition books sold on Amazon or Google searches (i.e., check the practitioner’s credentials and education before seeking consult).

A Functional Nutritionist is different from a conventional nutritionist in that he or she takes a deeper dive into the root cause of the health problem and looks at the whole person’s history and lifestyle to treat each individual as a separate case. This is different than the conventional approach of providing one plan for all people who have a similar health problem, such as one protocol for all diabetics and one protocol for all IBS patients. There are some strategies that may be used repeatedly for a particular health condition, but every person’s overall treatment plan is highly individualized as no case is exactly the same.

The following may be a part of working with a Functional Nutritionist:

  • Comprehensive health history and assessment questionnaire providing clues to the root causes of the health problem(s)

  • Food and beverage intake journal (3-7 days) with nutrient analysis

  • Food sensitivity journal with symptom tracking (if needed)

  • Digestive health journal (if needed)

  • Dietary supplement evaluation and planning (if needed)

  • Meal planning tools – how are you going to implement dietary changes?

  • Lifestyle assessment including stress, toxin exposure, activity, sleep habits, etc.

  • Lab testing

  • Analysis of recent labs

  • Potential recommendation for new labs – conventional or functional labs

  • Follow-up labs to measure effectiveness of treatment plan

  • One-on-one consultations with joint goal planning (i.e., client participates in setting goals)

  • Follow-up sessions to evaluate progress and modify treatment plan as needed

  • Programs running over the course of 1-3 months, depending on severity of health problem(s) – Functional Nutritionists work with clients through the health transformation process

Who can benefit from Functional Nutrition?

Functional Nutrition Therapy can be beneficial for many types of symptoms and health conditions, from minor to chronic disease. The following is a small sample of common symptoms and diseases that may benefit from Functional Nutrition Therapy:

  • Low energy

  • Lack of mental focus or brain fog

  • Digestive upset or bloating

  • Constipation or diarrhea

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

  • Crohn’s disease

  • Hormone imbalance (PMS or menopause symptoms)

  • Mood imbalance

  • ADHD

  • Migraine headaches

  • Skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis, etc.)

  • Weight management difficulties (weight loss resistance)

  • Heart disease, including high blood pressure and elevated blood lipids (cholesterol, etc.)

  • Diabetes or blood sugar imbalances

  • Cancer prevention or management

  • Other health conditions

The bottom line is that we all want to wake up in the morning and feel good. Most of us strive for optimal energy, ideal mental focus, and being free from physical discomfort and pain. The human body is meant to function in a healthy, normal way IF provided with the proper tools to do so. You can maintain your own path of good health, or improve your path towards better health, by making sure you are providing your body with all the tools it needs to function optimally. Consult a qualified Functional Nutrition therapist if you need help in your own personal pathway to optimal wellness.

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