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What, Exactly, Is a Functional Food?


The truth behind the latest health buzzword.


Once upon a time, it used to be enough to just try to exercise regularly and eat healthy. But then, experts came up with a new-and-improved goal: To make all your healthy habits functional. Your time at the gym needed to be spent doing functional fitness and your meals needed to be packed with functional foods. While it’s kind of easy to understand what functional fitness is (basically, workout moves that mimic and support actions you do in real life), you might be a little lost with defining functional foods. Don’t all foods serve a function? You know, to keep you full and provide nutrients? Well, yes, but the term functional food goes beyond that.

In a nutshell, functional foods have a benefit beyond providing basic nutrition. So, while all foods are technically functional (they include protein, which helps the body repair muscles, and carbohydrates, which give you energy, or support your health with vitamins and minerals), this group goes behind that. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as ones that “have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence." For example, they may have been shown to help lower cholesterol or assist with blood sugar regulation when eaten at normal dietary levels (for example, a health benefit attributed to walnuts has to be found in an amount of walnuts a person would reasonably eat in a day, like eight, not 100). Functional foods can be foods found in their natural state, like nuts and grains, but also fortified or enriched foods, like orange juice that has calcium added to it for bone health.

It sounds pretty great, but there are a few things to keep in mind. If you see the phrase “functional food” on a label, you should know that there is no legal or governmental definition of what that means. That means it’s up to you to decide if the food is a good choice or not. Specific health claims (like that a food can improve cholesterol levels) are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. When in doubt, check out the nutrition label and ingredient list on what you pick up to make sure what you’re eating is truly healthy.

While your diet is hugely important (diet is connected to some of the leading causes of death like coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes), remember that one single food will never make the difference in whether you stay healthy or not. What does matter: incorporating these functional foods into an overall healthy diet and lifestyle that also includes habits like regular exercise, mental health care, avoiding tobacco, and getting enough sleep.

Ready to start adding more functional foods to your diet? Stock up on these great options:

Yogurt: Packed with probiotics, this breakfast food helps bring good bacteria to your gut, which can help your immune system stay strong and support digestive health. If you’ve got a tub of plain yogurt, here are ten ways to jazz it up.

Salmon: Protein and omega-3 fatty acids in this fish (and other fatty fish) can help reduce your risk for heart disease, boost brain function, and can help reduce joint pain from arthritis. Try this slow-baked salmon and cherry tomatoes or these sophisticated fish sticks.

Almonds: Nuts in general can help keep blood sugar steady, but a handful of almonds in particular may help lower cholesterol and improve blood pressure. If you find them bland, cook up these saffron almonds, and if you want to mix them into other foods, make this broccoli rabe with garlic and onions.

Soy: There’s strong evidence that this protein can help reduce total and LDL cholesterol, and it’s easy to work into every meal: make a tofu scramble for breakfast, use soymilk in this fruit-packed smoothie as a snack, and cook this lemon broiled tempeh for lunch or dinner.

Barley and Oats: All whole grains are a good idea, but as far as whole grains go, these are a great choice. They can reduce cholesterol and also help control blood sugar levels. Try replacing rice with barley to make a risotto with shrimp and peas.

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