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Functional Foods: Putting Foods to Work for You

When you have the basics of a healthy diet down, you can take food and your diet one step further. Functional foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beverages are used for specific conditions or to enhance overall health and wellness. According to the Food Marketing Institute, 69 percent of Americans have already jumped on the band-wagon and are incorporating foods into a preventive lifestyle, while 27 percent are utilizing food as a treatment to manage a preexisting health condition, like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or diabetes. The key to functional foods are the nutrients or compounds they contain that either nurture health, speed healing, or prevent illness. Today you’ll find a wide variety of functional foods in your grocery store, which makes it easier than ever to reap their benefits.

The Role of Vitamins and Minerals When we choose functional foods, we are giving the body what it needs for optimal wellness. An important part of wellness is the 30 vitamins, minerals, and dietary components the body needs that it can’t make on its own. These micronutrients found in foods include water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, major minerals, and trace minerals.

Each micronutrient has a job to do. The calcium and vitamin D in dairy products can help to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. The potassium you find in whole grains or bananas can help lower blood pressure. The magnesium you eat in spinach and pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts can help maintain normal muscle and nerve functions. These nutrients play various roles throughout the body and serve important functions—helping to do everything from building bones to converting food into energy, to helping repair cellular damage from free radicals.

The Power of Antioxidants Out of the vitamins and minerals we need, antioxidants are some of the most important and functional nutrients because they work as free-radical scavengers, neutralizing those unstable molecules before they can damage your DNA, thus keeping your tissues young and vital longer. You can find antioxidants in citrus fruits (vitamin C), almonds (vitamin E), carrots (beta carotene that can be converted into vitamin A), and garlic (selenium).

Many studies have shown that the antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables can help prevent age-related conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals, which are a byproduct of normal metabolism and can damage DNA and lead to cancer. Phytochemicals in soy act as “lite” estrogens and help ease the symptoms of menopause. Plant chemicals, like garlic, also have antibacterial qualities. Making phytochemicals a part of your diet (aim for five to nine servings of fruits and veggies, for best effect) can help prevent many other conditions and diseases, too, including heart disease and high blood pressure.

Functional Foods The more functional foods you eat, the healthier you’ll be. But supplements can help, too. (More about these in foods that can improve your health )