As a registered dietitian and Director of Diabetes & Obesity Programs at a major New York hospital, I spend my days helping people take charge of their health by improving their eating habits. What I've discovered is that people hear so much about healthy ingredients that they often get confused not only about what they should be eating, but also why it's good for them. As a result, some of their best efforts may backfire.
Functional foods is another area where people get confused. The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board (IOM/FNB, 1994) defined functional foods as "any food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains." But the definition should be clearer. For example, does a potato chip become 'healthful' if calcium is added?
When it comes to the added nutrition of functional foods, focus on how they can make your already healthy food choices even more beneficial. So a smarter tactic is to replace the cola with a healthy food option such as orange juice, then look for an orange juice brand that that has additional benefits like heart-healthy plant sterols.
Good nutrition is cumulative. It's about making the right food choices throughout the day and eating common sense portion sizes. Here's how I advise my patients to begin making smart changes to their diets.
It's easy to understand why taking a multi-vitamin doesn't make the potato chips you just ate any healthier. Now think about a protein bar. You may eat one because it's supposed to be healthy for you. But if you're watching your weight, you're not hungry, and you don't even need the extra protein, all you're really doing is consuming extra calories, usually in your favorite flavor. (Protein bars do have a valuable place in a healthy lifestyle. I'll talk more about that later.)
Remember if you are dealing with a health issue such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or hypertension, a functional food won't solve the problem. You'll still have to do the work of improving your lifestyle. But today's functional foods make adding healthy ingredients to your healthy diet easier and more convenient than ever.
About Cathy Nonas
Cathy Nonas is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with a master's degree in clinical nutrition. She is Director of Obesity and Diabetes Programs at North General Hospital and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. She has published scientific articles on many facets of obesity, most recently on treatment parameters for the long-term management of obese patients.