Add These Functional Foods to Your Diet for Optimal Nutrition
The foods we choose can affect our wellness in ways we might not expect. As we age, food can play an even greater role in our ability to maintain energy, strength, and immune responses.
Choosing healthy options every day can be challenging, though. Understanding what functional foods we should add to our diet regularly can help us as we shop, meal plan, and enjoy the nutritional benefits of food.
What are Functional Foods?
We learn in school that most foods have targeted functions and nutritional value. Protein builds tissue. Carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel source, and dietary fats serve as storage for energy. Vitamins and minerals are responsible for many of the body’s processes. But how does this apply to the meals we prepare and eat every day?
According to the Institute of Food Technologies (IFT), what differentiates functional foods is that they “have the potential to provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.” Awareness of the connection between nutrition and health drives the strong appeal that functional foods have for health-minded consumers.
Functional Food Groups
The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics outlines the following functional food groups:
- Conventional or whole foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and seafood
- Modified foods: conventional items manufactured with added nutrients, for example, calcium-rich orange juice, Vitamin D-fortified milk and extra-fiber grains
- Medical foods: infant formulas and products to avoid dehydration
- Foods classified for special dietary use: infant and weight-loss foods
Benefits of Functional Food
According to Eat Right, “in the 1980s, the Japanese government created a class of ‘functional foods’ that included additional health benefits beyond those covered by basic nutrition.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not announced an official definition of functional foods.
What we’ve learned from global awareness of functional foods is when you consume a nutrient-dense diet, you boost your ability to:
- Avoid nutrient deficiency
- Lower your risk of disease
- Advanced normal growth and development
- Enhance your overall health
Importance of Functional Foods for Healthy Aging
The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) is based on scientific research that shows the link between diet, health promotion and disease prevention. The DGA reports that 6 in 10 adults live with at least one diet-related chronic health condition, such as diabetes. Older adults have a higher risk of developing chronic diseases and age-related disorders.
An article about geriatric nutrition, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism, explains the role that functional foods have in improving the health of older adults. “Selective functional foods help the elderly cut down and/or eliminate the medicinal intake by improving their physiological functions.”
Functional foods have the potential to:
- Prevent or slow the progression of some diseases that are common to the elderly
- Boost the immune system
- Lift your energy level
- Maintain healthy skin
- Retain healthy joints and strong bones
- Promote a sound digestive system
- Support longevity
Because metabolic activity progressively decreases with age, adults age 65 and over benefit from balancing medication, nutritional eating and exercise.
Functional Foods Examples
You may already be eating some of the items in the following sample list of functional foods. If not, maybe you’d like to try something new.
- Sweet potatoes
- Brussel sprouts
- Green and black tea
- Red wine
- Bone broth
- Apple cider vinegar
- Garbanzo (chickpeas)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Avocado oil
Fortified or Enhanced Foods
Although health care professionals discourage eating processed foods, you may not relish foods like fish and vegetables. Here are examples of modified foods to help you consume more nutrients:
- Peanut butter with flax seeds
- Eggs and milk with DHA (a form of Omega 3)
- Cereal with plant sterols
- Bread and pasta with calcium
- Iodized salt
- Energy bars
Hippocrates is credited with saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Some older adults live by this creed with a reluctance to take medication and concerns about drug interaction. Of course, check with your doctor about any medication concerns and changes in your diet.
A nutritionist can support your efforts to gravitate toward functional foods and healthy eating patterns by:
- Conducting a needs assessment to understand your food preferences and health conditions
- Working with you to develop a healthful eating plan that fits your lifestyle
- Guiding you toward mindful eating
Your Medicare Part B insurance may cover medical nutrition therapy services and some related services if you have been diagnosed with diabetes or kidney disease, or if you’ve received a kidney transplant within the last 36 months. Talk to your doctor if you think you could benefit from nutritionist services or need help reviewing your dietary needs.
Access to Fresh Functional Foods
Some seniors find it more difficult to get to a store frequently to get fresh foods, like vegetables and fruit. Mobility issues, vision concerns, illness, or injury can all keep you from being able to jump in your car to head to a local grocery store or farmer’s market.
If you need help getting access to the functional foods that will help you stay healthy, reach out to friends and family, neighbors, or local community groups who may be able to help. Access to grocery delivery has expanded since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, so take advantage of apps like Postmates or check your local grocery store website for delivery options.
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