The Benefits of Eating Functional Foods
“Let food be your medicine, and let your medicine be your food.” – Hippocrates
In recent years Americans have become more and more concerned with the foods they eat, and the benefits they provide. This is especially true with the Baby Boomer generation, who’s large population is always seeking ways to prolong their health and quality of life during these uncertain times.
Functional foods have a tremendous impact on overall health. When consumed as part of a well-balanced diet, they can reduce the risk, as well as help monitor, a variety of health conditions.
The growing curiosity and demand for functional foods have made its way to popular consumerism.
According to a recent statement by Tyson Foods. “Sixty-five percent of people are seeking foods with functional benefits.” Product lines are finding new and innovative ways to incorporate ingredients like probiotic cultures, prebiotic fiber, turmeric, and ginger into their product line.
It is necessary to view this increased commercialism with a critical eye, as the opportunity for commercial exploitation and deceptive practices is great.
Let’s take a look at the components of functional foods, as well as some staple foods to consider adding to your daily routine.
Phytochemicals are the compounds produced by plants and are found in beans, grains, fruits and vegetables, and a variety of plants.
These phytochemicals protect our cells from damage and can help prevent/fight against many diseases such as hypertension, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disturbances, and arthritis.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA does not provide a legal definition of the term Functional Food, The International Food Information Council (IFIC) and the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) define functional foods as “foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition (JADA, 2009).
Categories of Functional Foods
There are several categories that are used to define functional foods.
- whole foods (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables)
- manufactured functional foods (cholesterol-lowering spreads)
- supplements (probiotics and fish oil capsules)
The scope of this post will focus primarily on whole foods, as whole foods provide solid concrete benefits without the grey areas associated with processed foods and nutritional supplements.
While supplements can be essential complements to a well-balanced diet, I try to get as much bang for my wellness buck by consuming foods that come from their source, and that are minimally processed.
Let’s Talk Calcium – Animal vs Whole Foods
It is common knowledge that calcium is an important dietary component necessary for healthy bones. However, excess consumption can increase the risk of prostate, and possibly ovarian cancer.
Also, excess consumption of milk from animal sources can weaken bones due to its excessive levels of saturated fat and retinol (vitamin A).
For quality nondairy sources of calcium, you can replace the milk portion of the chart above and replace it with quality whole food sources of calcium such as fortified soy milk, bok choy, collard greens, and baked beans.
Also, you may consider adding a supplement to your diet that contains both calcium and vitamin D, as vitamin-D helps the body absorb calcium.
Quality Standards (How Do You Know What You Are Getting?)
When choosing a functional food, quality standards must be taken into consideration.
Probiotics or fermented functional foods must ensure the bacteria strain is viable and stable for the shelflife of the product.
One current method of quality standards is the Food and Drug Administration’s Good Manufacturing Practices. The GMP regulates biologically derived products and processed foods, in addition to other quality control processes.
When choosing a prepackaged item containing a functional food, such as turmeric or ginger, the food label is required to list the ingredients in order from the greatest to least.
So, if you are choosing a prepared container of chili, if the proportion of kidney beans compared to tomatoes is greater, kidney beans will be listed closer to the top of the ingredient list. This gives the consumer a good idea of the proportion of ingredients.
The top seven functional ingredients (Granto, 2010)
The following seven functional ingredients play an important role in the following health conditions: bolster energy and performance, enhance healthy aging, increase immunity function, aid in healthy digestive function, improve cardiovascular health, support strong and healthy bones and joints, aid in controlling diabetes, and promote healthy weight loss. (JADA, 2009; Starling, 2010, Granato, 2010)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
- Phytosterols (plant sterols)
- B vitamins
To obtain the recommended dietary allowance of many of the aforementioned functional ingredients, many people rely on supplements. However, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are best found in foods obtained in their unaltered state.
Whole-Food, Plant-Based Food Pyramid
DefimZ / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vegan-Foodpyramid.jpg
Whole Grains and Cereals
Whole grains and whole-grain cereals have a multitude of benefits. They protect against a variety of cardiovascular diseases (CVD); help prevent ischemic stroke; aid in the monitoring of diabetes and insulin insensitivity/resistance; help with weight loss associated with obesity; increase lifespan/reduce premature death, and help prevent against certain cancers.
A diet consisting of whole grains (brown rice, whole oats, quinoa, bulgur, farro, etc.), combined with legumes (chickpeas, lentils, peas, kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, etc.) not only help lower cholesterol and are low in fat, but they also provide a good source of dietary fiber and offer 10 to 15% protein. (De Moura, et al., 2009, Anderson, 2004; Slavin, et al., 1999).
Antioxidants and Whole Grains
Antioxidants are the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that protect our bodies from destructive particles known as free radicals. This strong army of fighters can be found in grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Free radicals in the body can initiate the pathway for cancer and atherosclerosis.
Low Carb versus Whole Grains
According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, half of the daily servings of grains should come from whole grains (Executive Summary, 2015). Unlike processed grains, whole grains foods include fiber, which can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, improve gastrointestinal function, prevent against certain cancers, aid in the control of non-insulin dependent diabetes, and increase a sense of fullness, which can help with healthy weight loss.
Grains and the Elephant in the Room – Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease
Whole grains are composed of three layers: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
The outer portion (bran) of the whole grain contains fiber, B vitamins, phytochemicals, and trace minerals. The second layer it’s called the germ, or the embryo, and is rich in vitamins E and K, unsaturated fats, and trace minerals. The inner layer, or the endosperm, is the starchy layer where carbohydrates and proteins can be found.
Contrary to current trends in marketing, gluten is not a problem for most people. A small portion of the population may suffer from gluten insensitivity, and in extreme situations may suffer from celiac disease, a disease of the autoimmune system.
While gluten-containing whole grains such as wheat, barley, and rye are not recommended for people with gluten intolerance/insensitivity, other options can be found that are gluten-free and extremely healthy.
The grains listed below are gluten-free when consumed in their whole food form. However, cross-contamination can occur during packaging. When purchasing grains make sure they are labeled gluten-free.
This AWESOME gluten-free grain is a major source of fiber and protein and has high amounts of disease-fighting antioxidants. Quinoa is one of the few plant foods that is also considered a complete protein source, containing all 8 essential amino acids. Quinoa is a versatile grain that can be incorporated into a variety of enjoyable recipes.
Millet can be found in a variety of foods and beverages such as flatbreads, porridges, drinks, and beers. People with thyroid conditions should always seek guidance from a qualified healthcare professional before consuming millet, as no it may play a detrimental role in overall thyroid health
- Brown rice
Both white and brown rice are gluten-free. We concentrate on brown rice because white rice has the germ and bran removed during processing. So, brown rice has greater amounts of fiber and micronutrients, including PROTEIN! One cup of cooked brown rice has 3 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. Brown rice has the wonderful characteristic of adapting to whatever flavor that is added to it. So add some veggies and a wonderful plant-based sauce and you will have a meal that is not only healthy, but delicious as well.
In contrast to its name, buckwheat is unrelated to wet and is actually a grain-like seed. Like most grains, buckwheat is high in antioxidants – especially rutin and quercetin. Rutin has shown promise with improving the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Quercetin is known to lower inflammation and oxidative stress.
Amaranth is a nutrition-dense food. It is very high in fiber, protein. Amaranth also meets 29% of your daily iron needs. Also, Amaranth contains significant amounts of magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. Amaranth is a versatile grain and can be used in a multitude of recipes.
Oats, a mainstay staple in most whole-food plant-based lifestyles, is rich with a host of nutrients including fiber, protein, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and thiamine (B1).
* If you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, it is important to make sure your oats are labeled certified gluten-free, as cross-contamination can occur. Also, the protein avenin is found in oats and can have a negative effect on a small percentage of people with celiac disease.
Ways to Increase Whole Grain Consumption
- When shopping, read the labels thoroughly and look for items that contain whole grain or whole wheat.
- Replace white flour and pancake mixes with whole-grain options.
- Try making an effort to serve vegetarian meals 2 or 3 times a week.
- Choose whole-grain bread, cereals, and crackers.
- Try new whole grains like couscous, buckwheat, bulgur, barley, and kasha.
- Shop at farmers’ markets for affordable functional foods and visit upscale grocery stores occasionally for more variety.
Fruits and Vegetables
Anti-Cancer Fighting Foods
You may be familiar with the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Five-A-Day for Better Health program. The current evidence shows that this number is significantly less than the recommended consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Recent studies recommend a daily serving of nine fruits and vegetables to support optimal health and to help reduce the risk of cancer. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that filling half of their plate with fruits and vegetables.
The Benefits of Consuming More Fruits and Vegetables
We all trust dear old mom, and likely remember her saying “eat your vegetables.” We all know fruits and vegetables are good for us, but just how good are they?
Increasing our daily consumption of fruits and vegetables can protect us against a multitude of conditions including cancers, coronary heart disease, inflammatory diseases, cataracts, and other chronic diseases.
Studies have shown that people who consume diets high in fruits and vegetables have a 50% lower risk of cancer than those who only consume minimal amounts.
The foods with the highest anti-cancer effects are cabbage, garlic, ginger, soybeans, carrots, celery, and parsnips. Also, food such as brown rice, citrus fruits, broccoli, brussels sprouts, onions, and flaxseeds have also proven to have cancer preventative properties.
Antioxidants and Aging
As mentioned earlier, antioxidants protect ourselves against free radicals. Free radicals play a role in diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and other conditions.
Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) determines the total antioxidant capacity of foods. Foods high in ORAC may help prevent aging.
The following foods are listed in order of anti-oxidation power:
>5,000 ORAC value: prunes
>2,000 ORAC value: raisins, blueberries, blackberries
900 to 1,600 ORAC value: strawberries, raspberries, plums, kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts
500 to 899 ORAC value: oranges, red grapes, cherries, broccoli florets, beets, red bell peppers
>499 ORAC value: onion, corn, eggplant
Garlic – A Wonderfood
Garlic and its medicinal benefits have a long history. When garlic is crushed it releases several compounds that have a multitude of health benefits.
The use of garlic is known to reduce the hardening of the arteries due to Atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arterial walls due to plaque buildup); reduce the occurrence of certain types of cancers.
Garlic also has antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and antioxidant properties and can help to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
When choosing your garlic, aged garlic extract is an odor free form of garlic and has some of the most nutrient value. Alternatively, one clove a day of fresh pressed garlic is an excellent nutritional addition to your diet. However, fresh pressed garlic has side effects that can be offensive to others, such as bad breath and indigestion.
Beans, Beans – Good for Your Heart (Well, You Know the Rest)
Legumes refer to peas, beans, lentils, peanuts, and other podded plants. When consuming a whole foods plant-based diet, legumes are a significant source of protein, and a staple food in an overall healthy diet.
Some of the reasons many people avoid legumes are the time it takes to prepare them and the association with unpleasant flatulence. Some tips to avoid flatulence are using Beano®, a supplement that can help prevent flatulence, or adding ½ tsp of vinegar per cup of cooked legumes.
Some of the health benefits legumes offer are they are excellent sources of protein, carbohydrates, micronutrients, phytochemicals, and soluble and insoluble fiber. Also, legumes are extremely low in fat.
What makes legumes a functional food are the many associated health benefits. Legumes help lower cholesterol; are low on the glycemic index and help those with diabetes, and can help fight obesity because they are low in calories and fill you up.
Soybeans and soy products have a bit of controversy surrounding them. Studies tout the amazing health benefits associated with soy consumption; however, some worry it may have a direct correlation with cancer and thyroid function.
Let’s explore some of these questions below.
The functional benefits of soybeans and soy are many.
Soybeans and soy protect against cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, renal disease, stroke, and diabetic neuropathy.
When consuming soy it is highly recommended to consume only soybeans labeled “organically grown,” as soy 90% of soy produced in the United States is genetically modified and may contain pesticides.
Also, it is recommended to consume whole soy foods (soy milk, edamame, and tofu) rather than soy isoflavone supplements and foods made with textured soy protein isolate.
Soybeans contain a variety of high-quality fiber. Soy is also an excellent source of whole food plant-based protein. And, unlike legumes, soy is a complete protein.
Potential Health Concerns – Soy Consumption
Soy and Thyroid Function
Soy has goitrogenic compounds, which can interfere with thyroid function for those who consume inadequate amounts of iodine. To continue receiving the benefits of soy, it is suggested to supplement your diet with the recommended daily intake of iodine.
Strategies for ensuring adequate iodine intake (150mcg/day) include using iodized salt rather than sea salt and/or increasing your consumption of sea vegetables – kombu kelp, wakame, and nori seaweed.
Soy and Breast Cancer
The ongoing question for many women – do the estrogenic type compounds found in soy contribute to breast cancer?
Recent studies have found that the phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) in soy protect one’s breast tissue from the more powerful ovarian estrogens.
Besides, a study in Long Island found that women living with breast cancer who consumed soy cut their risk of dying by 50%. Also, soy not only helps to prevent the occurrence of breast cancer, but it can also help increase the lifespan of those with breast cancer.
Soy and Testosterone
The good news is, not only does soy not have a negative impact on testosterone levels in men, but it has also shown to significantly reduce the risk of prostate cancer. So, go ahead and have that soy caffé latte!
These tiny seeds provide a mighty powerful punch. Flaxseed is one of the richest sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, flaxseed may work 2 to 3 times better than traditional prescribed medicines for hypertension.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial two groups were chosen and provided tablespoons of ground flaxseed every day into their diet.
After six months those who consumed the flaxseed lowered their blood pressure from an average 158/82 down to 143/75. This reduction in overall blood pressure results in a 46% fewer number of strokes and a 29% reduction in the occurrence of heart disease over time.
But the benefits don’t stop at the heart.
Flax seeds have tremendous amounts of cancer-fighting lignans; they have proven to be helpful in the fight against breast and prostate cancers; are effective in controlling cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood sugar levels.
Also, flax seeds have been successful in reducing inflammation and treating constipation.
As with any whole food, make sure to consult with your doctor prior to making any adaptations in your current prescribed medications.
Nuts are a nutrient-dense functional food that are filled with antioxidants.
Some of the best nuts to eat are walnuts, pecans, pistachios, almonds, and Brazil nuts. It is recommended to consume 1 to 4 servings/palms full of nuts per week.
The following is a list of the many healthful benefits of nuts and the nutrient profile.
Heart protective: Omega-e Fatty Acids (ALA)
Cholesterol-Lowering/Glycemic Control: Dietary fiber (≈ 25%% soluble fiber)
Antioxidants: Vitamin E
Reduce heart disease/risk of stroke: Folic acid
Healthy blood cell production (hematopoiesis): Copper
Calcium-potassium balance – heart health/rhythm: Magnesium
Cholesterol maintenance/heart-protective Arginine/phytochemicals (plant protein)
Nuts and Your Weight – Friend or Foe?
When it comes to nuts, you will often hear how they can make a person gain weight.
The key to understanding this is understanding that nuts are nutritionally AND calorically dense. In one serving of mixed nuts (about a handful) you get about 173 calories and 14 grams of fat.
Now, before you get too worried, only 1.5g of fat is saturated, the remaining are unsaturated fats.
As with all processed foods, much of the nutrients can be lost in the processing. To assure you are getting the most nutritional bang for your buck, try to consume your nuts raw or dry roasted.
Saturated Fat vs. Unsaturated Fat
When consuming fats, unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats.
The body needs fats to function optimally. Fat stores in the body help provide insulation for vital organs, regulate body temperature, and provide energy storage.
However, excess fat consumption can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and increase body weight. So, balance is key.
Saturated fats are most abundant in animal-derived products such as meat, eggs, dairy, and cheese. Plant-based foods contain very little saturated fat, with the exception of coconuts and palm oil.
Saturated fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends less than 6% of total daily calories come from saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats can be broken down into two categories – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. One important polyunsaturated fat is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have tremendous benefits for a healthy heart. Foods rich in omega-3’ are walnuts, flaxseed, and fatty fish (for the non-plant-based eater).
Monounsaturated fats provide a good source of vitamin E and are also beneficial to heart health. Foods such as avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds provide good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats.
Saturated fats and trans fats are the types of fats to avoid. The good news is quality functional foods contain small amounts of these fats, if any.
Saturated fats are most often found in animal products such as meat, dairy, and cheese.
Trans fat is found in oils that are generally solid at room temperatures, such as margarine, icing, and in processed foods such as cakes and cookies.
Aim to incorporate more unsaturated fat into your lifestyle to help reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your ”good” (HDL) cholesterol levels.
Probiotics or live bacteria and yeast that can have a positive effect on your digestive system.
When people think of bacteria they often imagine germs that can cause disease.
Probiotics are good bacteria because they help keep your digestive system in balance.
Probiotics can’t help several conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome, and diarrhea.
It is important to check with your primary care physician before incorporating probiotics into your diet, as mild side effects can occur in some populations with immune system disorders.
Perhaps the most common source of probiotics is yogurt. However, there are several ways to add probiotics to your diet.
- Sauerkraut Sauerkraut is finely chopped cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria. In addition to probiotics, sauerkraut is rich in fiber and contains vitamins C, B & K. Sauerkraut is also a rich source of iron and magnesium.
- Tempeh Tempeh is a fermented soy bean product. During the fermentation process vitamin B-12 is produced. This is a great option for vegetarians as B12 is mainly found in animal products.
- Miso A paste most commonly found in Japanese soup that can be bought in many varieties: red, brown, white, and yellow. In addition to being nutritionally dense (protein, fiber, vitamin K, copper, and manganese), miso has also been found to lower the risk of breast cancer in the middle aged Japanese women and is associated with a reduced risk of stroke.
- Pickled Vegetables Preparing your own pickled vegetables is easy, and gives you the added boost of a healthy, probiotic-rich treat. You can use almost any vegetable – cucumbers, carrots, red bell peppers, green beans and, cauliflower are some of the most commonly used.
When preparing your vegetables, add some of the following to give it some additional flavor: garlic, turmeric, dill, or jalapeno pepper.
* The fermenting process contains high amounts of sodium. Therefore, fermented foods should be consumed in moderation especially for those with high blood pressure.
The concept of prebiotics and probiotics can get a little confusing. Think probiotics as beneficial bacteria for the body, and prebiotics as being the food that feeds the good bacteria.
Prebiotics contain fiber that cannot be digested by the human body, so the good bacteria in your body feed on this fiber, and in turn provide nutrition to the digestive tract.
While many use their hard-earned money to purchase prebiotic supplements, many foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes contain them naturally.
The following is a list of foods high in prebiotic fiber.
- Legumes, beans, and peas
Well, there ya have it. This article could have gone on for another couple of pages, but I think we have covered the important concepts regarding functional foods.
Happy and healthy eating!
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS
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