Functional Diet: What Is It and What Are its Benefits?

A functional diet is committed to the consumption of certain foods enriched with nutrients that are beneficial to health. Learn more.
Functional Diet: What Is It and What Are its Benefits?
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 16 December, 2022

A functional diet is one that, as the name suggests, is based on the consumption of functional foods. These are edible products that have beneficial properties for the body due to their nutrient content or the addition of certain compounds.

It should be noted that many of the foods that we consider to be functional exist thanks to industrial technology. By means of techniques implemented in laboratories, it’s possible to increase the nutritional density of certain products by adding, for example, unsaturated fatty acids.

What are functional foods?

Dairy products and eggs.
Dairy products are an important part of this diet.

As we’ve commented, functional foods are those capable of exerting a specific benefit on human health, due to the presence of nutrients with certain properties or due to the inclusion of a substance thanks to industrial techniques.

An example would be dairy products enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. These elements have been shown to be capable of reducing cardiovascular risk and inflammation, which is why their inclusion in the regular diet is recommended. Although they can be ingested through oily fish or nuts, they’re also found in various functional foods.

At the same time, it’s common to find in this type of diet certain products that have passed a previous fermentation process. Thanks to this mechanism, certain beneficial bacteria proliferate in the body, known as probiotics.

According to research published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, these microorganisms are capable of improving digestive function by promoting intestinal health.

How to plan a functional diet?

When planning a functional diet, variety must be ensured. Not only can foods such as those mentioned above be included, but it’s also crucial to introduce other products from different groups. For example, it’s important to ensure the intake of vegetables, fish, meat, etc.

In addition, with some regularity, dietary supplements can be included to complete the supply of nutrients, although these must be recommended by a specialist. A nutrition expert must also be the one who chooses the functional foods that are included in the diet on a regular basis.

Depending on the needs and goals of the patient, different functional foods or supplements may be more beneficial. It’s even important to take into account the existence of previous diseases or the use of medications, as both details can condition the diet.

The benefits of a functional diet

Next, we’ll discuss the benefits of a functional diet, along with the position of science on the matter.

A functional diet helps modulate levels of inflammation

Many of the nutrients introduced into functional foods are intended to help maintain balance in the internal environment. Unsaturated fatty acids stand out above all, as they’re capable of reducing the markers associated with inflammation, as stated by research published in the journal Biochemical Society Transactions .

However, to ensure that these nutrients do their job, they must be introduced in the context of a balanced dietary regimen. In this regard, the supply of substances capable of exerting the opposite effect must also be restricted.

An example would be added sugars or trans-type lipids, as both have the power to stimulate inflammatory mechanisms.

As for lipids, it should be noted that their impact on the body is determined by the arrangement of their molecules in space. In nature, most of the fatty acids are of the cis type. However, when they’re subjected to aggressive thermal processes, they change to a trans type, which are harmful.

Greater biodiversity in the microbiota

The presence of fermented products in the functional diet guarantees an almost constant supply of probiotic bacteria to the intestine. These reach the intestine with the ability to colonize the tissues, thus exerting a beneficial effect on the host. In fact, the regular intake of these microorganisms is associated with a lower risk of developing digestive problems.

But not only are probiotics important for digestive health, they’ve also been shown to act by increasing the efficiency of the immune system. This is evidenced by a study published in Probiotics and Antimicrobial Proteins.

The microorganisms cover the walls of the intestine, thus reducing its permeability. This makes it less likely for pathogens to reach the bloodstream and spread throughout the body.

In addition to including fermented products in the diet, it’s essential to include a good dose of fiber. Within this group, foods that have prebiotics in their composition stand out. These elements are capable of serving as a substrate for intestinal bacteria, thus stimulating their reproduction.

According to research published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, oatmeal’s a product that contains substances of this type, called beta-glucans.

A lower risk of getting sick

Many of the complex diseases that currently develop are related to vitamin D deficiencies. Although it can’t be established precisely that this is the cause of the problem, it’s clear that their management and prognosis worsens. For this reason, an increase in the consumption of this nutrient is necessary to avoid such situations.

It should be noted that vitamin D is an element that the body can produce by itself through exposure to sunlight. In many countries, depending on the weather conditions, there’s no continuous access to this resource during all months of the year. Hence the risk of deficiencies increases.

That’s why the dietary consumption of this nutrient becomes crucial, although it’s found in few foods (and in low amounts). However, a functional diet proposes a solution to this problem, by including foods enriched with vitamin D in the diet.

An example would be dairy products, which also include a significant dose of calcium in their composition. The dual consumption of both nutrients is capable of protecting bone health, while also reducing the incidence of other complex diseases. This is demonstrated by a study published in European Cells & Materials.

Efficient antioxidant supply

A functional diet is achieved with plant foods.
Vegetables help to complement many dishes, and are generally very nutritious.

Antioxidants are a series of compounds capable of neutralizing the formation of free radicals through the transfer of an electron to reactive oxygen species. This reduces the risk of becoming ill, as the accumulation of these elements in the tissues increases systemic inflammation and the risk of mutation in DNA replication.

Many of the foods included in a functional diet have a large amount of antioxidants in their composition, which is very beneficial. These are generally present in products of plant origin, but they can also be introduced artificially into certain foods that have been manipulated by the industry.

It must be taken into account that in many cases, they work as pigments, so they’re capable of improving the organoleptic characteristics of the food itself.

The regular consumption of functional foods enriched with antioxidants can, therefore, decrease the incidence of many complex diseases. Here we find metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.

The inclusion of supplements in a functional diet

A functional diet also values the inclusion of supplements with the aim of improving well-being. In this regard, the use of melatonin stands out, as it’s a hormone capable of positively impacting sleep, thus facilitating rest.

We can even highlight other substances that have similar effects, such as magnesium, tryptophan, 5-HTP… You can also introduce other compounds that improve the antioxidant activity of the body or even help maintain a good appearance of the skin.

In any case, the inclusion of supplements in the diet must be supervised by a professional. Many compounds are marketed, but few have shown beneficial effects in rigorous studies.

Most of those advertised are innocuous, but some can develop interactions with drugs, leading to situations that can put your health at risk.

Supplement a functional diet with exercise

In addition to taking care of your diet, when the objective is to improve your health, it’s also necessary to improve your lifestyle. In this regard, it’s advisable to perform physical exercise frequently. Specifically, strength work is that thick has shown the greatest benefit on the body.

This practice is capable of complementing the effects of the functional diet by achieving homeostasis in the internal environment. Staying active reduces the risk of inflammation, thus generating processes that can alter the physiology of the human body.

A functional diet, support for good health

As you’ve seen, the main objective of a functional diet is to improve health. To do this, you must include a wide variety of products in the diet, as well as enriched functional foods or those with special and beneficial properties.

However, it’s also important to guarantee energy balance in this type of eating pattern. Otherwise, an imbalance in the caloric balance could be generated that ends with an increase in fat weight gain. When it comes to ensuring an adequate state of health, it’s important to guarantee a good body composition.

Remember also that it’s crucial to combine diet with good lifestyle habits to avoid inefficiencies in the functioning of internal systems. Apart from exercising, it’s optimal to sleep a minimum of 7 hours a day, thus improving rest and repair processes.

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