Throughout history, food has either been hailed for its health benefits or ignored altogether. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” was taught by Hippocrates, a Greek physician born in 460 BC. Today, that thought is simplified to “you are what you eat.”
“Food is more than nutrition; it’s the No. 1 drug we put into our bodies,” says Eric Hassid, M.D., a fellowship-trained functional medicine and neurological rehabilitation physician.
Functional nutrition is one of six principles of functional medicine as practiced by Dr. Hassid and partner Karin Grumstrup, nurse practitioner, at Functional Medicine in Vacaville.
“Functional medicine is a new way of looking at health and disease,” Dr. Hassid says. “The goal of functional medicine is to restore an individual’s health to the highest level in order to maximize the likelihood of successful long-term disease prevention and management. This concept stems from the notion that a healthy human body is the best healer of disease.”
“The concept of functional nutrition stems from the notion that a healthy human body is the best healer of disease.”
—Eric Hassid, M.D.
Functional medicine looks at how the body works at the cellular level. It studies physiological principles such as bioenergetics—how cells produce energy; inflammation and oxidative stress—critical for chronic disease and aging; cellular communication, immune balance (how cells protect and defend from disease) and structural integrity.
“When you appreciate that the body is one complex dynamic biochemical soup, the impact that nutrition has is tremendous,” Dr. Hassid explains. “Proper nutrition can delay the onset of illness and increase the years we have in good health.”
Reducing inflammation within the body is one of the goals of a functional nutrition regimen. Doing so is a critical factor in reducing the onset and progression of chronic disease and accelerated aging.
“Our gastrointestinal tract contains a large portion of our immune system in order to protect us from foreign invaders. When the gut barrier is disrupted from stress, environment and/or food, inflammation and autoimmune disease can ensue. This is why we commonly say that problems often start in our gut, where food sensitivities can cause inflammation that sets the stage for developing a disease process,” says Grumstrup. “You don’t have to have a full-blown case of irritable bowel syndrome to have low-grade food sensitivities that affect your health.”
The first thing Grumstrup does for her patients is prescribe a detoxification diet—eliminating dairy, soy, sugar, gluten (wheat), and other possible offenders for three weeks. Then foods are gradually added back into the diet while watching for sensitivities.
“I find that most people don’t know their food sensitivities,” Grumstrup says. “Furthermore, there are healthy foods, such as eggplant and tomatoes that can cause systemic inflammation.”
Recently, one of her patients found that his chronic migraine headaches disappeared after three weeks of the food elimination diet.
“Avoiding foods that are high in refined carbohydrates or sugars is a good strategy for anyone interested in improving their health,” Grumstrup says. “These foods provide empty calories and can cause a sharp rise in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can lead to excess fat storage, low energy and an increased risk of chronic disease such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and dementia. Sugar can even impare your immune system and thus your ability to fight infection and ward off cancer.”
Whole foods are the cornerstone of functional nutrition. This includes high quality, lean protein; energy-rich carbohydrates and fats; plus important vitamins and minerals. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils strengthens your body at a cellular level and helps you maintain stable blood sugar levels. Dietary fiber and even drinking enough water impacts your health.
Embracing a whole food diet also removes all of the chemical additives that you eat when you consume processed foods. This helps detoxify your large and small colon, liver, and kidneys so they can function at an optimal level.
Health Benefits Beyond Basic Nutrition
Functional foods are foods that do more than simply supply the nutrients your body needs. The International Food Information Council defines functional foods as those that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition, such as promoting health or reducing your risk for certain health conditions.
“This includes foods in which active substances occur naturally,” says Dr. Eric Hassid. “I recommend kale, broccoli, berries and pomegranates for their ability to promote optimal health.” He stresses that the healthiest functional foods are whole foods, because manufacturers have begun to label some processed foods as “functional.”
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the claims manufacturers can make about processed functional foods’ nutrient content and effect on disease, health or body function. One example is oatmeal, which the FDA allows manufacturers to label as “including soluble fiber that can help lower cholesterol levels.” Another is orange juice fortified with calcium.
However, it’s important to remember that no single food or supplement can make up for poor eating habits.