Functional nutrition is a growing field of nutrition that is based on the premise that you are unique. And you really are.
Because each and every one of us has different nutrition and health requirements to optimize our vitality, this also means that functional nutrition is going to be unique to you as well.
The other exciting part of the functional approach is that it isn’t just about nutrition.
In this post, I will give you some examples of how functional nutrition differs from conventional nutrition, and why it matters to you.
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How is functional medicine different from conventional medicine?
First, here is a little bit of background about functional medicine so that you can understand functional nutrition. Functional medicine is the all-encompassing term under which functional nutrition falls.
It is about treating you as a whole person and looking at the beginnings of your health issues, also known as the root cause of health issues.
Think of conventional medicine, or standard medicine, like a cookie-cutter. For example, if you have a problem, such as gut pain, you will probably get a standard “cookie-cutter” workup of a colonoscopy or upper endoscopy, which is important. But, what if nothing is found? With conventional medicine, there is nothing more to do if you get a “clean scope.”
With functional medicine, the root cause of gut pain is explored, which is often rooted in food and nutrition. From there, you can figure out triggers, exposures, and underlying issues that may have gotten you to the point of gut pain in the first place.
An easy way to describe functional medicine is that it is like holistic medicine, meaning that you are treated as a whole person rather than a single organ or single condition.
Functional nutrition concepts
There are some distinct differences between a function nutrition dietitian and a conventional dietitian too. Rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach, functional nutritionists use the following concepts when helping you.
Even if you can’t afford to see a functional nutrition practitioner right now, seeking out basic concepts of functional nutrition can help you identify tools in your lifestyle that can be useful to you.
You are unique
We are all unique, so when you see a functional nutrition expert, you will get tailored advice that helps you heal. This approach will be based on your history, your unique nutrition lab tests, food sensitivity tests, and a deep history of how you react to foods.
Food is medicine
Just because you are unique doesn’t mean that there are some common food principles that can help most people. Food as medicine is at the core of treatment with this type of care.
This is because food is more than just calories or energy. It is packed with information, which can be good or bad, depending on your unique needs.
Chronic diseases are often rooted in nutrition imbalances and poor gut health. Food can be very healing for these reasons.
Functional nutrition is patient-centered, meaning that rather than an authoritarian style of approach, the patient is very much part of the team working on health goals.
A visit with a functional medicine or functional nutrition provider will usually be a minimum of an hour and a half, versus a standard visit which will be closer to 15 to 30 minutes tops. This is to allow you to get to the root cause of your health issues.
While similar to integrative medicine and integrative nutrition, functional nutrition is a science-based field that incorporates laboratory data, history of exposures, your timeline, your lifestyle, and even genetic factors in helping you get to the root of your health issues.
Incidentally, these issues also often are related to gut health nutrition.
Functional nutrition dietitians speak up
Many classically trained dietitians turn to functional nutrition and functional medicine when they realize that much more can be done to help themselves and others. Myself included.
Here are some quotes from functional nutrition practitioners and how they find help for their patients from this individualized approach.
“It’s the thing that got them well when conventional medicine never did.” Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof, RD of Health Takes Guts.
“Integrative functional nutrition makes me feel empowered and helps teach my clients how to advocate for themselves” from Rachel Arleen, RD of Insight Nutrition Online.
“I found answers and solutions because of Functional Medicine that I was never able to find in conventional medicine. Now I’m able to provide answers, solutions, and hope to my clients with Functional Medicine in my own practice ?” by Taylor Stolt RD of Plate and Canvas.
“I’ve had Crohn’s since 1998 and no one ever said the word H.pylori to me which I obviously had, and feel better than I ever have in my life, so now this is my career ?” by Molly Ostrander RD.
How Dietitians Incorporate Functional Medicine
Dietitians in functional medicine use special approaches to help their patients. Here are some approaches my colleagues use:
- “Using functional nutrition gets to the root cause of my client’s symptoms and healing with food and nutrients. This approach is the 5 R protocol starting with the removal of food sensitivities first.” by Amy Archer RD at the Wellness RD
- “Knowing personally reactive foods & chemicals via MRT blood testing & LEAP protocols.” by Jan Patenaude RD
- “Root cause solutions!” By Sheila Dean of the IFN Academy
Training for functional providers
A functional nutrition specialist has a minimum of a 4-year bachelor of science degree, usually a dietetics degree, and a registered dietitian certification through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Additionally, they have post-degree training in nutrition education in functional medicine through providers such as:
- IFN Academy
- Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine
- Institute for Functional Medicine
- Functional Nutrition Library
When to seek out a functional nutrition provider
Functional nutrition doesn’t replace your primary care doctor or medical specialists that you see. Rather, a functional nutritionist and functional medicine doctor help support you along your healthcare journey by taking a deep dive into food healing concepts and supplements when needed.
Let’s face it; healthcare needs more healing from food, not less.
Functional nutrition is particularly helpful in supporting you if you struggle with chronic diseases, including:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Digestive disorders
- Brain fog
- Chronic pain
- Low energy
- Skin issues
Basically, I’ve come to believe that everyone can benefit from the support of functional medicine and nutrition. We live in a society that is exposed to new chemicals all the time and more processed foods than ever.
Healing starts from what we eat so much because we do it every day. A good functional nutrition provider also accounts for the stress, emotional, and physical aspects related to how we eat and how our body responds to foods.
I practiced functional medicine before it was popular, mostly for myself. By working with patients in the hospital,
I would also get frustrated with the standard approach because I would see that it wasn’t helping me or my patients as much as I knew food could help.
With a natural curiosity and my avid love for nutrition research, I began building my tools to help people by using foods, herbs, and natural healing principles early on. As my confidence built up, I would share research studies with the doctors that I worked with every day about natural medicines and foods as medicine.
Food is a four-letter word in conventional medicine
Back then, I worked on the oncology floor in our hospital, and I would quiz the doctors about various foods as medicine. While they may not have practiced functional medicine, I could tell that they had frustrations with the current paradigm as well. Food is like a four-letter word taboo. They can’t talk about how it helps people.
Docs DO know food helps people, yet they aren’t given the tools in medical school to help people with it.
After all, standard medical schools only have 19 hours of nutrition training in their schooling, according to US News and World Report. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in their training in nutrition!
These frustrations continue to grow today, as many doctors feel pigeonholed into the current medical practices, yet they want to do more. I wish they all had functional medicine training.
My training in functional medicine
My official training in functional medicine began in 2014 when I attended the Institute of Functional Medicine’s Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice. This deeply immersive conference gave me many more tools to help restore gut health, heal myself, and help each and every patient I met.
Through these courses, I learned how my gut was driving so many things that were happening in my body, and I began to heal from the inside to all the way outward- my skin. I felt younger than in my 20s by simply adopting functional nutrition approaches.
I’ve also taken courses and modules from almost all of the training listed above, which are very helpful for practitioners like me.
With functional nutrition, I grow every day and so do my colleagues above. I continue to practice conventional medicine with the confidence that I’m helping each person a little more than I might have if I hadn’t been given the extra knowledge from this specialized training.
Examples of Functional Nutrition
At the core of functional medicine is including more foods that heal by helping to restore gut health.
Examples of this are:
- Sauerkraut, kimchi, or kombucha serve as probiotic foods and probiotic supplements when needed.
- Food sensitivities and inflammatory foods, such as highly refined oils and sugars, are minimized or eliminated.
- Healing foods like ginger, turmeric, fennel seeds, broccoli sprouts, most vegetables, grass-fed meats, and healthy fish are often encouraged.
- Dampening stress and managing sleep.
- Replacing nutrients that are deficient, such as vitamin D3, magnesium, and B vitamins. For more information, read about the best natural vitamins.
- Using medicinal foods like medicinal mushrooms. Reishi is one of my favorites and here is a brand I like:
Functional nutrition gets to the root causes of diseases and helps people heal using food and nutrition approaches. It is used in combination with standard conventional medicine because it is heavily science-based, but also a patient-centered approach.
Many people seek out this type of help when they have turned every other direction without success in their health journey. We aim to change that by starting with prevention through functional medicine is even more powerful so we don’t waste years of lost productivity due to illness.
If you are seeking a functional nutrition provider, visit any of the links provided above or visit IFM to find a functional medicine provider in your area.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.