13 Functional Foods (And Why You Should Be Eating Them)

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Foods that offer health benefits are called functional foods — because in addition to providing energy, they have one (or many!) functions that keep us healthy. Best of all, you likely have at least a few functional foods hanging out in your pantry.

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The idea of food as medicine isn't new — in fact, it's the basis for thousands of years of alternative medicine — but advances in nutrition research have taught us just how important food is to our overall health. We now know that diet is crucial for strong bones and muscles, brain health, slowing down the aging process and fighting chronic diseases, like cancer. Read on to learn more about a few of our faves!

1. Turmeric

If we had to choose our favorite functional food, it’d be turmeric. It’s bright hue makes every dish look more gorgeous (we’ll even put up with turmeric stains!) and it’s loaded with health benefits, too. Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, is a powerful antioxidant. It has anti-inflammatory properties, and early research suggests it might have cancer-fighting benefits, too.

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Add a dash of turmeric to a mango smoothie for added health benefits, or make this comforting golden milk for a caffeine-free pick-me-up.

2. Apple Cider Vinegar

Low in calories but packed with flavor, vinegar is already welcome in most healthy diets. But it’s a functional food, too — acetic acid, the compound that gives vinegar its sour taste, has powerful antibacterial properties. And some research suggests that AVC helps stabilize your blood sugar levels after a high-carb meal, helping to prevent rapid blood sugar “spikes” and “crashes” that can make you feel fatigued. ACV also helps you feel more satisfied from your meals, which may make it easier to eat less — and shed pounds.

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Whip up an ACV vinaigrette using vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and use it to dress salads and roasted veggies.

3. Jackfruit

A staple in many South and Southeast Asian cuisines, jackfruit is starting to gain attention stateside. And with its heart-healthy benefits, it’s not hard to see why. Jackfruit is a powerhouse of potassium, an essential mineral that helps control your blood pressure. Potassium works “against” sodium — so while a salty meal can raise your blood pressure (and up your cardiovascular disease risk), potassium brings your pressure (and your disease risk) back down.

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Most of us could stand to eat more potassium, thanks to the salt in our diets, so load up on jackfruit for 16 percent of your daily potassium needs in each cup. Eat fresh jackfruit raw, freeze the pods to add to your favorite fruit smoothie, or try this delicious BBQ jackfruit recipe.

4. Manuka Honey

Honey is often overlooked as a functional food, but manuka deserves its healthy reputation. Like most types of honey, manuka offers powerful antimicrobial properties. In fact, researchers are studying whether manuka might be good enough at killing harmful bacteria that it might help reduce our dependence on antibiotics! In the meantime, though, you should eat manuka for its antioxidant capacity, which protects your cells from damage.

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Use it to make raw granola bars, add it to your smoothies, or stir in a spoonful of manuka to sweeten your tea.

5. Kefir

Move over, Greek yogurt — we’ve got a new favorite in the dairy aisle! Kefir is a close relative of yogurt, but it tends to have a tangier taste and thinner texture. And while it’s a great source of nutrients — like most dairy products, it supplies lots of high-quality protein, vitamin D and calcium — its probiotic content sets it apart from most other dairy. Lactobacillus acidophilus, one of the most abundant beneficial microbes in kefir, might help replace “friendly” microbes in your digestive system, as well as help banish harmful bugs that cause stomach upset and digestive issues.

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Add a half-cup of kefir to your blender to make a "rainbow" probiotic smoothie bowl, or add a few spoonfuls to homemade granola for a hearty breakfast.

6. Coconut Milk

If you’re looking to add healthy fats to your diet, it doesn’t get much better than coconut milk. Coconut milk is packed with medium-chain triglycerides, also called MCTs, which digest similarly to carbohydrates — which means they give you a quick burst of energy, just like carbs would. The healthy saturated fatty acids in coconut milk also increase your “good” HDL cholesterol, which may help protect against heart disease.

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Use thicker coconut milk (the kind in the can) to make creamy curries and sauces, and use the thinner milk (typically found in tetra packs) in smoothies.

7. Bone Broth

Bone broth isn’t your basic soup stock — it goes through hours (or sometimes, up to a day) of simmering to create a thick broth with a rich meaty texture. All that simmering allows more collagen to dissolve into the broth, which means bone broth has the perfect balance of amino acids to nourish collagen-rich tissues, like your skin and hair.

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If you’re making your own bone broth, add veggies to the pot for even more more flavor. Healthy add-ins and seasonings have their own health benefits, too — we love our broth topped with freshly grated turmeric and a bit of cayenne for metabolism-boosting heat.

8. Cauliflower Rice

If you love rice (who doesn’t!) but want to save calories, riced cauliflower is your best bet. At about 50 calories per cup, compared to brown rice’s 248 calories, swapping in cauliflower rice for real rice twice a week for a year would save you enough calories to lose about 6 pounds of fat. Add in cauliflowers cancer-fighting properties — thanks to phytonutrients called organosulfur compounds — and you’ve got the perfect functional food.

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Make your own homemade cauliflower rice, and then try adding sauteed cauliflower rice to your omelettes, and (of course) use it in place of rice in just about anything!

9. Avocado Oil

Move over, coconut oil — avo oil needs some time in the spotlight! Avocado oil is packed with healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, also called MUFAs. These are among the best fats for your heart, because they both lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise the “good” HDL cholesterol, which may lower your risk for heart disease.

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Avocado oil also supplies vitamin E, an antioxidant. Use avocado oil to make salad dressings, and drizzle it over roasted veggies (after roasting) or into soups for added richness.

10. Cumin Seeds

Step into the spice aisle and you’re surrounded by functional foods, since spices are among the most concentrated sources of antioxidants you can get. Pick up cumin seeds, and you’ll also get an impressive source of iron. Just a teaspoon of cumin has nearly 8% of the iron you need for the day — iron that helps boost oxygen flow to keep you feeling energized, and also nourishes your immune system to keep you from getting sick. You’ll also get small amounts of bone-friendly minerals like manganese and calcium, plus copper for brain function.

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Use cumin to season curries, and add it to your favorite veggie burgers (like this yummy sweet potato version) for a spicy kick.

11. Flax Eggs

Flax eggs have long been part of vegan eating, but they deserve a place in anyone’s diet. The eggs, made by soaking 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed in 3 tablespoons of water until it forms a gel, are loaded with dietary fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. The fiber helps keep you feeling full, while omega-3s lower inflammation and nourish your brain.

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Use flax eggs in place of regular eggs to add nutrition to baked goods, like muffins, or use them to make brunch-worthy pancakes.

12. Rice Vinegar

Like apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar offers plenty of benefits due to its acetic acid content, and any variety of rice vinegar is good for you. To get the most health benefits, though, you should pick up Kurozu, a fermented rice vinegar found at Japanese grocery stores. Early research suggests that Kurozu might help fight neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimers, and may even have anti-cancer properties.

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Use it as the vinegar in homemade sushi, or combine it with sesame oil and low-sodium soy sauce for easy Asian-inspired dressing.

13. Cardamom Pods

Hello, heart health! Seasoning your foods with cardamom pods makes any dish instantly better for your cardiovascular health. Cardamon pods contain eucalyptol, a powerful antioxidant. And emerging research shows that cardamom may also help lower your cholesterol levels, which in turn would lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

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Add a few pods to your blender to make spiced almond milk — it’s perfect to mix in hot or iced coffee!

What Do You Think?

Do you have a favorite functional food — and is it one of the foods on this list? Which food are you most excited to try? Let us know in the comments!

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