It wasn’t until third year university that I called home, excited to tell my parents about what I had learned in class that day. I am sure the fact that I had not done so up until this point was rather troubling to them. When you contribute to the financial needs of your child’s university ambitions you always hope that they like what they are studying, and learning anything is an added bonus! (or, wait, is it the other way around?) Anyway, I was in my third-year nutrition class and my prof had just introduced us to the concept of functional foods and nutraceuticals. This gentleman, Dr. Bruce Holub, was (and still is) known world-wide for his contribution to this specific area of science. How lucky was I to have him as a teacher!
If you just glazed over at the “science-y” word I just used, let me explain. A “functional food” is a food that promotes health benefits above and beyond that of preventing nutritional deficiencies. In the media, these are also called “Super Foods.” A “nutraceutical” is the concentrated form of the component in the food which is responsible for these benefits. Whenever I am teaching people about this, I use the most familiar example to explain: salmon is a functional food because it contains beneficial fats called omega-3’s. These fats help promote heart health (and a whole bunch more!), and when you consume them in a pill form (like you can find in a health food store), this is defined as a “nutraceutical”.
Coincidentally, this is what I called home about and told my parents that they needed to start taking fish oil caplets right away! A Masters degree in this subject, and five years of selling nutritional supplements later, I still am passionate about promoting the use of functional foods to enhance one’s health.
While in graduate school, I co-chaired a symposium with a fellow student, called “Just Start! Eat your way to a Healthy Heart” where different researchers and professionals lectured on the heart-healthy benefits of certain foods. We were lucky enough to have Dr. David Jenkins come in and speak to the audience about his research. Dr. Jenkins is a Canadian Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Toronto. He is also the Director of the Risk Factor Modification Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital, also located in Toronto.
Recently, Dr. Jenkin’s research on the cholesterol-lowering properties of certain foods, was in the news again. A randomized study performed on 351 individuals with high, to borderline-high cholesterol levels, looked at the ability of two different diets to lower LDL-C cholesterol (i.e. “bad” cholesterol) over a 6-month period. The first diet was low in saturated fat, the typical type of diet prescribed to those diagnosed with high cholesterol. The second diet incorporated the functional foods: soy, fibre from oats and psyllium, nuts, and plant sterols (certain type of plant fats found in specialized margarine). The participants were given dietary advice at different frequencies over the 6-month time frame through counselling sessions with a dietician. At the end of the study, those following the diet rich in functional foods, showed a 13% drop in their LDL-C cholesterol levels, while those following the low-fat diet only produced a 3% decline.
The interesting part of this study is that the participants were not given the foods to eat, but rather were counselled on how to buy and use the foods in their diet. This way, the method of intervention is more applicable to “real” life. If you are interested in learning more about this study, a great article can be found on CBC’s website.
If you are considering trying out some of these functional foods, and are currently on a prescription to help control your cholesterol levels, it is best to first speak with your healthcare practitioner so that they can correctly monitor your progress and adjust your medications accordingly.