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What Is Functional Medicine & Nutrition?

While growing in popularity, what is functional medicine and nutrition really all about? Learn what functional nutrition entails and ways to start the practice today.

What Is Functional Medicine & Nutrition?

The words "functional nutritional therapy practitioner" may sound like alphabet soup to many people. What are functional medicine and functional nutrition? 

Since food choices are influenced by a number of factors, functional medicine takes a unique and holistic approach to put pieces of a health puzzle together.

Find out the ultimate guide to functional medicine, and why many practitioners consider food as medicine for their patients. 

What Is Functional Medicine?

Functional medicine is considered a type of healthcare model. It offers a patient-centered, holistic approach for finding the root cause of an illness. Patients gravitate to functional medicine practitioners because they address triggers in a personalized path to healing. 

Possible root causes of illness that functional medicine addresses are: 

• Poor nutrition
• Mental and emotional stressors
• Physical needs
• Physical activity
• Sleep patterns
• Toxins
• Allergens
• Genetics
• Microbiome (the body's balance of "good" and "bad" bacteria)

Once a root cause is identified, the right treatment is planned with lifestyle and behavioral interventions. This results in a unique style of management for treating disease, especially chronic diseases. Nutrition plays into many of the possible root causes of disease, so looking at food choices as part of addressing overall health is important 

How Does Nutrition Fit Into Functional Medicine?

Food is considered a first-line therapy in functional medicine. Some providers even use the motto "food as medicine" or "food is healthcare and medicine is sickcare" to guide their practice. 

Health is seen as a product of customized lifestyle and behavioral interventions that allow individuals to become accountable and empowered to their own healing. 

Are Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition the Same?

Functional medicine is facilitated by two main factors: 

1. Patient-focused care: A comprehensive medical history, lifestyle assessment, and health history are taken prior to the first appointment. This assessment is used to identify possible triggers and design the basis of a holistic health treatment plan. 

2. Multidisciplinary teams: Care providers work together to support the patient, which may include a specialized provider, dietitian, and behavioral health therapist. Providers also work together to collaborate for the best quality of care. 

On the other hand, while functional nutrition is a key component of functional medicine, the two are different. Functional nutrition is a disease-focused practice while functional medicine is a patient-centered approach. 

To illustrate this difference, it is helpful to consider this scenario. If an individual comes into a functional practice to be treated, functional medicine helps identify what is going on with the body. It can also pinpoint what symptoms are presenting (i.e. gastrointestinal discomfort, skin problems, brain fog). 

Connecting the Clues

Functional nutrition helps make sense of these clues by identifying potentially food-related causes, such as: 

• Nutrient deficiencies
• Food sensitivities
• Food allergies
• Intestinal disorders
• Food aversions

The individual will benefit from both functional medicine and functional nutrition. However, each practice has a unique goal as part of the whole approach. 

Common Conditions Treated with Functional Medicine 

Many common conditions, especially chronic conditions, are treated with functional medicine. Some familiar conditions include: 

• Asthma
• Autoimmune diseases
• Cardiovascular disease
• Dementia and Alzheimer's disease
• Diabetes and metabolic disease
• Food allergies
• Fibromyalgia and arthritis
• Thyroid and adrenal disorders
• Women's health disorders (i.e. PCOS)

Is Functional Nutrition Therapy Practitioner a Good Fit For Everyone?

There are certain nutrition interventions that apply to most people. For example: 

• Consume less refined carbohydrates
• Eat less processed foods
• Focus more on real, whole foods

However, the best diet for an individual is the one that is customized to meet their needs. Functional medicine and nutrition are unique in that they tune into the body and bioavailability of the individual. 

Overall, functional nutrition is a key part of functional medicine. It also does not operate under the assumption that "one-size-fits-all". 

The Fundamentals of Functional Nutrition

Understanding the basic components of functional nutrition is vital to discerning the best health care plan for an individual. 

Taking a Look at Food Choices

Since functional nutrition uses a holistic nutrition approach, or looks at the parts of a puzzle as pieces as a whole, functional providers consider food choices. Some factors that play into food choices include: 

• Physical activity
• Environmental influences
• Chronic disease
• Behavior patterns
• Individual physiological makeup
• Quality of relationships
• Stress level

For example, coconuts might be considered "healthy" or "good for you" by the general population. However, if personally allergic or sensitive to coconuts, functional nutrition can help discover that maybe coconuts are not the healthiest possible food choice.

Pros of Functional Nutrition 

Functional nutrition has many upsides, such as it:

• Is customized to meet a person's unique needs and health concerns

• Takes a patient's history, present patterns, and lifestyle practices into account

• Makes nourishing the body easier and more applicable because dietary choices are explained by a practitioner familiar with the individual's unique needs

These aspects make functional nutritional therapy providers a key part of some individual's health care team. Especially for those dealing with chronic disease, a provider that helps to manage unique needs is crucial to achieving the best quality of life. 

Cons of Functional Nutrition

Since by nature a functional approach cannot be standardized, depending on the practitioner or expert it can be expensive or not covered by insurance. Many experts recommend visiting a standard nutrition care practitioner if chronic illness is not an issue or if general nutrition advice is needed. 

Keep in mind that standard providers can always give referrals to functional practitioners if needed.

Finding the Right Functional Providers

It is important to note that dietitians are nutrition professionals that prescribe diet plan, and doctors diagnose and treat medical conditions. Terms like "nutritionist" and "health coach" are relatively unregulated. 

Functional providers should be part of a trusted team of professionals. They should be able to determine the root cause and may need to order lab work to do so. Finding a functional health professional that can administer the best customized care is crucial to achieving positive outcomes. 

Ways to Practice Functional Nutrition:

1. Build a foundation of real, whole foods. This includes a varied diet with items such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. Rather than avoiding or restricting food, focus on adding more good foods into an eating plan to create healthy habits. 

2. Make the microbiome happy and healthy. The immune system is tied to gut health, so food and lifestyle play a big role in health issues. Fiber, hydration, and physical activity can help things move along. A healthy diet with foods full of probiotics also helps with balancing intestinal environments and minimizes symptoms. 

3. Keep the big picture in mind. Do not get so caught up in details that mood and energy suffer. Staying aware of sleep patterns, relationships, and stress management helps support healthy food choices, too.

List of Functional Foods

Many products claim to be "functional foods". In fact, most foods are functional, meaning they provide vitamins and minerals to the body when eaten for specific cell functions. 

Generally, the term "functional foods" refers to minimally-processed, whole foods with potential benefits beyond natural nutrition. Fortified and enriched foods can also be functional foods. Consuming the following nutrient-dense, functional foods regularly may improve health. 


With higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids ("healthy fats"), seafood consumed at least twice a week is great for most adults. Great options include: 

• Salmon
• Sardines
• Trout
• herring


Unsalted varieties of nuts not only make a great snack, they also bring the protein. Helping promote heart health and a feeling of fullness, try incorporating these popular nuts into the diet: 

• Cashews
• Almonds
• Walnuts 
• Pistachios

Whole Grains

Whole grains continue to be the topic of dietary recommendations, and for a good reason. Fiber is provided at high levels and compared to refined counterparts, whole grains cannot be beat. Get a more complete nutritional profile by consuming: 

• Oats
• Whole barley
• Farro 
• buckwheat


Right up there with whole grains, beans provide an excellent amount of dietary fiber. Fiber is a nutrient of public health concern in the United States. Beans help bridge the gap and provide protein, potassium, and folate as well. 


Berries are not just great tasting. They also provide a plethora of vitamins and minerals, which is why they have long been considered a functional food. Frozen or fresh, favorite options include: 

• Strawberries
• Cranberries
• Blueberries
• Raspberries
• Blackberries

The Bottom Line

Functional nutrition, a disease-focused approach, is a keystone of patient-focused functional medicine. Using a holistic view and functional foods, providers seek to find the root cause of disease. 

Healing begins from the inside out, with the patient taking accountability for their own quality of life, keeping both the cellular level and big picture goals in mind. 


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Functional Foods. Eatright.org. Published January 4, 2021. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/functional-foods

Cleveland Clinic. Why Choose the Center for Functional Medicine. My.clevelandclinic.org. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/functional-medicine/about

Institute for Integrative Nutrition. What Is Functional Nutrition? Integrativenutrition.com. Published December 2, 2020. https://www.integrativenutrition.com/blog/what-is-functional-nutrition.