If you look at the diet of any creature on the planet, you'll notice one big commonality: every bite of consumed food has a purpose. Animals don't eat because they're having a craving. Rather, they seek out very specific food sources that will help them gain energy, reproduce, and better respond to their environment. Consider bears, for example, which in addition to a plant-rich diet, also seek out easy proteins like insects and fish to help them store protein and fat for the long winter. You may know dogs to be primarily carnivorous (or at least high-protein omnivores), but canines can enjoy chewing on some grass or raw vegetables now and then to help enhance their digestion. Or, take a look at gorillas, who will occasionally consume soil – yup, just some raw dirt! – to add additional minerals to their normal sugary fruit (albeit vitamin- and fiber-rich) based meals. The cardinal rule of a natural animal diet is eating on a need-to-nourish basis.
The Non-Functional Exception
The one exception to this purpose-driven diet is … you guessed it ... humans. Beyond just hunger, we eat for all kinds of reasons, ranging from nostalgia to boredom. And nobody knows our weaknesses better than food manufacturers, who have created all kinds of food products that tap into our deepest emotional cues. Crunchy corn puffs colored with red spicy “fire” powder? Creamy ice cream studded with flecks of cookie dough? Pickle flavored popcorn? Are you hungry yet? Our diverse cravings are tested every time we walk into a grocery store. And with such an abundance of tempting options, it's no surprise that many of us often fall victim to eating foods that are super low on the nutrient density scale: or in other words, foods that are high in calories, but don't offer much in the realm of actual nutrition or benefits.
How Functional Foods Work
Functional foods are just the opposite. These aren't just foods that allow us to survive from a caloric standpoint, they're foods that can help us truly flourish. Saturated with nutritional perks, functional foods bring us back to our intuitive animal state as either natural foods or recipes (or products) that can help us respond to our environment – or at least the demands of our lifestyle! – much more easily. Of course, the most obvious answer of functional foods in their raw state is any kind of superfood. Naturally loaded with healing antioxidants, important vitamins, essential minerals, adaptogenic qualities, and more, superfoods are the “quick fixes” of the dietary world, and consuming them can help us meet our nutritional needs quickly and efficiently. Not all functional foods are superfoods, but all superfoods are functional foods.
Other types of functional foods are a little more designed. These may be products that are crafted with various ingredients for one or more specific wellness purposes, such as cognitive function or gut health. But, if you're watching closely, you'll likely find that many of the most popular functional food products on the market are “functional” actually because of superfoods included in the ingredients! Once again, superfoods really are at the epicenter of our nutritional goals and gains. So the next time you sit down for a meal, take a moment to be conscious of what you're really offering your body. If your answer comes up short, it may be time to incorporate some additional help from functional foods, and the endless benefits they have to offer.