What does the term “functional food” mean?

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 instinctually seek out very specific food sources that will help them fill their bellies, gain energy, reproduce, and better respond to their environment. Consider bears, for example, which in addition to a plant-rich diet, also seek out things like insects and fish to help them store protein and fat for the long winter. You may think of 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-based meals. The two cardinal rules of a natural animal diet are eating for survival, or eating on a need-to-nourish basis.

The Non-Functional Exception

The one species 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 psychological cues. Crunchy corn puffs colored with red spicy “fire” powder? Creamy ice cream studded with flecks of cookie dough? Cheese-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 frighteningly 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 or satisfy an

of-the-moment craving, they're foods that can help us truly flourish long term. That’s because functional foods are saturated with nutritional perks, and can help bring us back to a more intuitive way of eating so we can respond to our environment – or at least the demands of our lifestyle! – much more easily. In other words, think of functional foods as “foods with a purpose:” they are foods that offer your body better performance in a myriad of nutritional ways. Eating the function food way is simple, albeit a different way of looking at food. Instead of solely following taste when picking a food, you’re instead looking at first what your food can offer to your body (and most functional foods do or can taste amazing too, lest you worry!). For example, you may consume some lentils to garner important amino acids to rebuild tired muscles after a workout, or you may eat pumpkin seeds to load up on zinc to fight off a cold. Of course, the most saturated example of functional foods is any kind of superfood: Strawberries, kale, maca, hemp, ashwagandha … the list of functional food superfoods is as long as it is excitingly diverse. Loaded with healing antioxidants, important vitamins, essential minerals, adaptogenic qualities, and more, superfoods are the richly beneficial answer to the low micronutrient epidemic found in the conventional dietary world, helping us meet our nutritional needs quickly and efficiently. Not all functional foods are superfoods, but all superfoods are functional foods. 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 you.

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