Functional Nutrition: Rooted in Fad or Fact?

Last Updated: February 17, 2024

Unpopular opinion: nutrition is not medicine, and it is not the cure for every ailment.

Now I wouldn’t be a dietitian if I didn’t think nutrition was important- it most certainly is. Through nutrition, we can both help manage and prevent certain illnesses. But far too many people are using nutrition as a substitute for actual medical care, and often they happen to label themselves ‘functional’, ‘holistic’, or ‘integrative’.

But here’s the catch: anyone can label themselves using these terms because they are not regulated. Many of these individuals have little to no background in health science. But even credentialed practitioners (MDs, DOs, RDs) are susceptible to selling pseudoscience.

Those who practice pseudoscience will often ‘diagnose’ false root causes like dysbiosis and hormonal imbalances using unvalidated testing. This ultimately leads to sales of fake treatments and restrictive diet plans, not to mention the toll it takes on mental health. It’s unethical to profit directly from the supplements and interventions prescribed or recommended, which these practitioners often do.

I understand the appeal. The dietary guidelines are not ‘cutting edge’. Many people also suffer from unexplained symptoms. But the answer should not be being subjected to unproven treatments to cure problems that potentially don’t exist. Functional practitioners want you to believe they have uncovered some illness that everyone else has missed. And only they know how to treat it through their herbal/diet therapies.

Unscientific nutrition practitioners have become very savvy at using science-y terminology to confuse and deceive. They often will mix common-sense advice about nutrition with total nonsense, so it’s difficult to tell the difference. It’s a predatory, profit seeking practice, and it’s important to tell the difference between those who provide compassionate, evidence-based recommendations, and those who don’t.

What Is Functional Nutrition?

Functional nutrition claims to treat the person using a holistic approach, while addressing the “root cause” of symptoms. Functional practitioners often prescribe unnecessary tests, supplements, herbs, and “detoxes” to treat illnesses that don’t exist. These practitioners claim to be using scientifically based treatments, but these practices lack sufficient data, and may actually cause physical, emotional, and financial harm.

What Differentiates Functional From Traditional Nutrition Practice?

Traditional nutrition practice, aka medical nutrition therapy, uses clinically effective, evidence-based guidelines to prescribe interventions. It is a growing and constantly evolving field that does not encompass “functional” practices. Most of the tests, supplements, and diet regimens prescribed by functional practitioners lack any substantive evidence to support their use. These supplements also happen to be expensive.

What Functional Nutrition Does Right

  • assumes “standard” nutrition practitioners do not assess and treat the patient holistically
  • assumes food can heal all ailments; food = food, medicine = medicine, food ≠ medicine
  • claims to diagnose and treat conditions that have been found by research to not exist
  • uses anecdotes that can be misleading
  • uses weak research articles to back claims
  • practiced by many people with no scientific background

What Functional Nutrition Does Right

  • encourages common-sense healthy lifestyle practices
  • emphasizes a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods
  • encourages adequate sleep and exercise

Functional Nutrition Red Flags

  • eliminates trust in traditional medicine/nutrition
  • uses unvalidated testing such as IgG, DUTCH, etc
  • claims food can heal all ailments
  • diagnoses many patients with the same short list of conditions that have been found by scientific research to not exist
  • recommends expensive supplements that are sold by the practitioners themselves, which happens to be a conflict of interest

Bottom Line

We have no evidence to support nutrition therapies that ‘treat’ functional diagnoses like leaky gut, vague hormonal imbalances, adrenal fatigue, etc. Many of these diagnoses have some basis in science but are blown out of proportion by functional nutritionists.

Nutrition is a complex science that cannot be fast-tracked via a 6-12 month certification program.

If the science was legitimate, it would simply be called “nutrition” and would be a part of all dietitians’ standard of practice.

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