An Introduction to Functional Foods and Dietary Supplements

If you’re new to the world of functional foods and  dietary   supplements , you might be thinking, “All foods have a function, don’t they? They provide nutrition and keep you from being hungry, what more are they supposed to do?” Well, there’s a little more to it than that.

The concept of functional foods first showed up in Japan in the mid-80’s. While there’s no scientific or universal definition of a “functional food,” the term is generally applied to any food eaten for a specific health benefit. If you eat blue blueberries because you like the taste, then they’re just a food. If you eat them because you know the contain glucoquinine, which helps strengthen your eyes, then they become a “functional food.”

At this point, the word nutraceutical comes in, too. A nutraceutical is an ingredient taken from ordinary food and sold as a healthy product. The line between nutraceutical and  dietary   supplements  can become a little blurry, though. For example, you might apply either term to blueberry or bilberry pills sold as vision support supplements.

Popular functional foods

The most common types of foods described as functional are vegetables and fruits eaten for the various vitamins, minerals and other nutrients they contain, and whole grains eaten as source of soluble fiber. Fish are often eaten for the omega-3 fatty acids they contain and many people also drink wine specifically for its beneficial effects on the circulatory system. Although berries are packed with vital nutrients, they’re often overlooked as a functional food simply because they taste good. It’s easy to forget they’re a “health food.”

Deciding on  dietary   supplements 

When it comes to food, decisions are fairly easy to make. You’ve got to eat something, so why not choose the most nutritious foods you can, provided they’re at least palatable? With  dietary   supplements , though, the choice isn’t so easy. Advertising claims sound great, but many physicians warn against the dangers of overdosing, mixing supplements, or taking them along with prescription medications.

If you eat a healthy well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes

(along with dairy, fish, and lean meats, if you choose), you probably don’t need  dietary   supplements . Unfortunately, few of us can eat perfectly all the time. Consider  dietary   supplements  if you know you won’t be able to eat well for a while, if you have extra nutritional needs such as during pregnancy or breast-feeding, or you have a medical condition that impairs your digestion. Vegans may also want to look into  dietary   supplements .

Keep in mind, though, that some  dietary   supplements  can be almost as powerful as prescription medication. (After all, if they did nothing to your body, why would you even take them?) Before starting a new supplement, read up on its possible side effects and interactions and talk to your doctor about it, too.

With all the junk food available today, it takes a little planning and forethought to eat well.

Including functional foods and  dietary   supplements  in your diet gives you a far better chance of meeting all your nutritional needs than just picking up whatever is on sale at the supermarket.