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  • Adriano dos Santos

The Power of Functional Nutrition

What does Functional Nutrition mean, exactly?

Functional nutrition is a holistic approach to nourishment that targets the underlying causes of health issues. It aims to understand the root of the problem and work towards reversing or preventing it, rather than simply managing symptoms.

Functional nutrition takes into account an individual's unique biochemistry, recognizing that everyone's chemical, mental, and spiritual identity is different. It prioritizes creating balance in the body by identifying imbalances and implementing strategies to address them.

For example, in the case of acid reflux, a conventional dietitian might simply advise a client to avoid certain foods that trigger symptoms. A functional nutrition practitioner, on the other hand, would investigate the reasons behind the reflux, such as an imbalanced gut and provide personalised treatment plan that include appropriate lifestyle changes, diet adjustments, and supplement recommendations to improve and support digestive health.

Conventional Nutrition vs. Functional Nutrition


​Conventional Nutrition

Functional Nutrition

Cookie cutter meal plans

Highly individualized approach

Treats the symptoms instead of the root cause

Treats the client as a whole person, not as a disease

Categorizes the body as a disease state and treats the disease

Looks at the body as a whole

Focuses on avoiding symptoms

Works to reverse and prevent conditions, not just manage them

Nutritional imbalances can contribute to or cause a variety of chronic conditions, and interventions that address these imbalances through proper nutrition can bring relief or even resolve these conditions completely. Adequate nutrition is not only associated with disease prevention, but also with improved outcomes in surgical recovery.1,2 However, despite the importance of nutrition in healthcare, clinicians are often not provided with basic nutritional training in medical school, as a systematic review in The Lancet has suggested.3

As a result, many patients do not have optimal nutrition4 and are experiencing record levels of chronic disease.5 These chronic diseases are a major concern in middle-aged and older populations,6 and many of them respond well to nutritional interventions. The risks of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease are strongly linked to lifestyle factors, particularly dietary choices.7,8,9

Immunonutrition, the potential to modulate the immune system through specific nutrient interventions, has also emerged as a clinically important concept. 10 Nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, and D, folic acid, beta-carotene, and trace elements such as zinc, selenium, manganese, and iron, play an important role in the gut microbiome.11

There are a variety of approaches to plant-based eating, from Mediterranean-type diets to vegetarian and vegan diets. Plant-based diets focus on maximizing the consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods (such as vegetables, fruits, beans, peas, lentils, and nuts) and minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods (including dairy and eggs).12

Despite the significant evidence in favor of plant-based diets, including studies showing the willingness of the general public to adopt them, many physicians do not stress their importance as a first-line treatment for chronic illnesses.13

Specific nutrients and dietary patterns have also been investigated for their neuroprotective properties. Studies have shown that increased diet quality and adherence to dietary guidelines that emphasize consumption of fruits, vegetables, fish, and fiber, are related to better cognition among both those with and without cognitive impairments.14,15

Additionally, specific nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, and specific diets such as the Mediterranean and ketogenic diets have surfaced in recent neurodegenerative disease research, with suggested benefits in prevention, slowing disease progression, and improving quality of life for patients.16-22

Nutrition-based interventions are a fundamental component of many therapeutic strategies used to combat chronic illness and restore optimal health. These personalized treatments may include modifiable therapeutic food plans that address nutritional imbalances, and collaboration between patients and practitioners is essential for successful implementation and sustainability.


  1. Zhang H, Wang Y, Jiang ZM, et al. Impact of nutrition support on clinical outcome and cost-effectiveness analysis in patients at nutritional risk: a prospective cohort study with propensity score matching. Nutrition. 2017;37:53-59. doi:1016/j.nut.2016.12.004

  2. Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Physical activity and good nutrition: essential elements to prevent chronic diseases and obesity 2003. Nutr Clin Care. 2003;6(3):135-138.

  3. Crowley J, Ball L, Hiddink GJ. Nutrition in medical education: a systematic review. Lancet Planet Health. 2019;3(9):e379-e389. doi:1016/S2542-5196(19)30171-8

  4. Wanniarachige D. Malnourished patients often unacknowledged. CMAJ. 2015;187(4):242. doi:1503/cmaj.109-4991

  5. Ward BW, Schiller JS, Goodman RA. Multiple chronic conditions among US adults: a 2012 update. Prev Chronic Dis. 2014;11:E62. doi:5888/pcd11.130389

  6. Robbins R. Big pharma’s big push to get patients to take their meds. STAT News. Published February 4, 2016. Accessed May 31, 2022.

  7. Cochran A. Does your doctor have ties to big pharma? How you’ll be able to find out. CBS News. Published March 4, 2014. Accessed May 31, 2022.

  8. Ozdemir A. Macronutrients in adolescence. Int J Caring Sci. 2016;9(2):1162-1166.

  9. Anderson JG, Lopez RP, Rose KM, Specht JK. Nonpharmacological strategies for patients with early-stage dementia or mild cognitive impairment: a 10-year update. Res Gerontol Nurs. 2017;10(1):5-11. doi:3928/19404921-20161209-05

  10. Williams JD, Wischmeyer PE. Assessment of perioperative nutrition practices and attitudes—a national survey of colorectal and GI surgical oncology programs. Am J Surg. 2017;213(6):1010-1018. doi:1016/j.amjsurg.2016.10.008

  11. St Sauver JL, Warner DO, Yawn BP, et al. Why patients visit their doctors: assessing the most prevalent conditions in a defined American population. Mayo Clin Proc. 2013;88(1):56-67. doi:1016/j.mayocp.2012.08.020

  12. Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013;17(2):61-66. doi:7812/TPP/12-085

  13. Wesselman LMP, Doorduijn AS, de Leeuw FA, et al. Dietary patterns are related to clinical characteristics in memory clinic patients with subjective cognitive decline: the SCIENCe project. 2019;11(5):1057. doi:10.3390/nu11051057

  14. Fieldhouse JLP, Doorduijn AS, de Leeuw FA, et al. A suboptimal diet is associated with poorer cognition: the NUDAD project. 2020;12(3):703. doi:10.3390/nu12030703

  15. Nolan JM, Mulcahy R, Power R, Moran R, Howard AN. Nutritional intervention to prevent Alzheimer’s disease: potential benefits of xanthophyll carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids combined. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018;64(2):367-378. doi:3233/JAD-180160

  16. Calil SRB, Brucki SMD, Nitrini R, Yassuda MS. Adherence to the Mediterranean and MIND diets is associated with better cognition in healthy seniors but not in MCI or AD. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2018;28:201-207. doi:1016/j.clnesp.2018.08.001

  17. Power R, Prado-Cabrero A, Mulcahy R, Howard A, Nolan JM. The role of nutrition for the aging population: implications for cognition and Alzheimer’s disease. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol. 2019;10:619-639. doi:1146/annurev-food-030216-030125

  18. Chai B, Gao F, Wu R, et al. Vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: an updated meta-analysis. BMC Neurol. 2019;19(1):284. doi:1186/s12883-019-1500-6

  19. Bianchi VE, Herrera PF, Laura R. Effect of nutrition on neurodegenerative diseases. A systematic review. Nutr Neurosci. 2021;24(10):810-834. doi:1080/1028415X.2019.1681088

  20. Grodzicki W, Dziendzikowska K. The role of selected bioactive compounds in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Antioxidants. 2020;9(3):229. doi:3390/antiox9030229

  21. AlAmmar WA, Albeesh FH, Ibrahim LM, Algindan YY, Yamani LZ, Khattab RY. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil supplementation on multiple sclerosis: a systematic review. Nutr Neurosci. 2021;24(7):569-579. doi:1080/1028415X.2019.1659560

  22. Wlodarek D. Role of ketogenic diets in neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease). Nutrients. 2019;11(1):169. doi:3390/nu11010169

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