Jason Barker, N.D., and Chris D. Meletis, N.D.
Preventive medicine has undergone great advances, in the last decade alone demonstrating the crucial role of nutrition for preventing diseases, especially those related to diet. The philosophy that food has health-promoting effects beyond its nutritional value has gained considerable acceptance in recent years and the specific disease-preventing effects of nutrition have even led to the new science of functional foods.
Although these foods have no universally accepted definition, they are described as foods or nutritional elements that have health promoting benefits and/or prevent diseases. In this sense, the concept of food expands beyond that which is not only necessary for sustaining life, to include the concept that foods comprise a source of mental and physical well-being that decreases risk factors and prevents disease or enhances physiologic functions.
Foods that produce a beneficial effect on specific functions of the body, beyond basic nutritional effects that are relevant to well-being, health, or reduction of disease, and risk of disease are gaining respect as a form of medicine. Nutritional foods can be utilized by increasing their concentrations or by adding or improving upon the bioavailability of particular components of these foods.
The use of functional foods as medicines is especially relevant to intrauterine and early childhood development; during pregnancy, nutrition can be thought of as functional because of influences on prenatal development. After birth, foods that are used in a functional manner may confer certain health advantages to the developing child. In light of the relatively recent findings in nutritional medicine on childhood growth and development, science is revealing even more important aspects of specific micronutrients and the prevention of diseases and other disabilities.
These findings continue to be highlighted as the micro- and macronutritional states of young children have come into question with the apparent decreased quality and relative proportions of foods consumed. Nutritional science continues to reveal more specific uses for micronutrients in medicine beyond that of basic nutrition. There is now a realization that the Western diet, with its excesses, is inadequate and may be causing some of the diseases that occur today.
Using specific foods beyond standard nutritional requirements is aimed at modifying genetic and physiologic aspects of disease prevention and treatment. Several food substances are included in this category; they exert actions on different systems acting to enhance development and differentiation by positively modulating nutrient metabolism, oxidative stress, gene expression, and mental development.
The establishment of health claims surrounding functional foods depends on the discovery of efficiency in biologic responses to treatment with these foods. The optimum intake of specific functional foods is yet to be established; much controversy surrounds this issue. Therein, the greatest challenge for the practitioner is to work with each patient’s diet as a whole and ensuring that each patient consumes at least adequate amounts of known biologically active foods.