Functional Foods

Last week I attended the Annual Nutrition Convention and Exposition for the Massachusetts Dietetic Association. It’s always interesting to get a few hundred dietitians together and see what happens (well, I find it interesting!). The session subjects varied from School Nutrition to Diabetes Education to Food Safety (just to name a few). One of the sessions I attended was “Functional Foods” and I thought I would share some things that came to mind as I listened to the talk.

If you have never heard the term before, functional foods are foods that provide some health benefits beyond the energy (Calories) and micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) that people generally think about. Some functional foods are whole and some have been fortified, enriched or enhanced in some way; they all have bioactive compounds within them that influence health and disease. These foods are sometimes in the media spotlight as “Superfoods” and contain various phytochemicals which can help to reduce oxidation, balance hormones, reduce inflammation and stimulate the immune system. Functional foods can be helpful for diseases such as Diabetes, Colitis, IBS, Crohn’s, Asthma, Obesity, and various Cancers.

At this point you are probably waiting for a list of these foods that you can eat in prescribed doses to combat all of the health problems you have (or never want to have); am I right? Well, the bad news is that I’m not going to say that everyone must eat one or two specific foods and the good news is that these phytochemicals are found in lots of different foods not just a few! Sources are fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts & seeds and herbs & spices. Of course some contain more of one phytochemical than another, usually color intensity is an indication, but not for every phytochemical. Depending upon the phytochemical you are looking for, it may be found more in orange foods or red/purple foods for example. To get the benefits without making yourself crazy, make sure that you eat a variety of these foods (a rainbow of color) and that they make up the majority of your diet. Add a variety of seasonings in the form of herbs and spices to enliven your taste buds and add to the nutritional benefits. If you have a specific health concern, eating more of some foods may be very helpful; see a Registered Dietitian for help with your individual concerns.

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