By Kristen Gostomski, Functional Exercise & Nutrition Specialist, Youth Athlete
Development Consultant, Author of Functional Core Strength Soccer
What is Functional Nutrition?
Functional Nutrition is a holistic personalized approach to health and healing with an emphasis on both food and lifestyle.
1. relating to the way in which something works or operates.
As a functional nutrition specialist, I guide people toward food and lifestyle choices that nourish the body to help it work and operate efficiently. I do not diagnose, prescribe, or treat—instead I educate. Food affects the body at a cellular level. It can provide nourishment and improve health or it can deplete nutrients and cause disease.
Functional Nutrition should:
- improve energy, mind, and mood.
- promote healing.
- help people discover root causes of illness and disease.
- improve dental health.
- balance blood glucose levels.
- encourage better sleep.
- help manage weight without feeling deprived.
- foster joint mobility and decrease pain.
- make hair, skin, and nails look their best.
How I Became a Functional Nutrition Specialist
My journey toward functional nutrition began in college when I started experiencing severe stomach pain—so severe that it landed me in the emergency room at the local hospital. The doctors ran a plethora of tests and eventually told me that they couldn’t find the cause of my pain. Through college and into my late-twenties, I struggled on and off with mild to severe stomach pain. Worse than the pain was not knowing the cause. I never again talked to a doctor about the pain I was experiencing because I didn’t want to go through more uncomfortable testing in vain.
Fast forward a few years later to the birth of my 2 children, 2 years apart. As babies, they both suffered from colic, diarrhea, and reflux. No doctor ever gave us an explanation, other than, “some babies just go through this.” When my boys were school age, their stomach problems continued.
We began seeing a new pediatrician who recommended we attempt to find the root cause of their digestive distress by slowly eliminating certain foods. After several weeks of experimenting, they both experienced relief with the elimination of gluten, dairy and soy.
As for convenience, more than anything, I decided to remove these things from my diet as well. Just days later, the bloating and stomach pain I had experienced for almost a decade started to get better—dramatically better.
I immediately began researching the link between food and digestive health. The amount of evidence I found linking diet to almost every known mental and physical disease is staggering.
“I was happy that my kids and I were finally feeling better. I was also infuriated at the idea that we could have, with little effort, felt better long before.”
That was my “aha”moment.
Since then, I have been researching, experimenting, and experiencing functional nutrition. I’ve researched over fifty diet philosophies, read over one hundred nutrition books, and analyzed hundreds of nutrition studies. Now I’m certified through The Institute for Integrative Nutrition and I’m in the process of writing a functional nutrition book outlining my findings in both research and practice.
Along the way I’ve worked with friends, family, and clients who have made some amazing discoveries about how food affects our mental and physical bodies. Here are some of their stories. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
When my son was about 7 years old he started having what seemed like hallucinations every time he would get sick with a fever. He would wake up in the night afraid, saying that things sounded really loud, his hands looked really big, his face felt distorted, and everything looked far away. I figured it was a form of night terrors and just blew if off as something we’d deal with when he got sick. When he was around 9, it started happening all the time, even when he wasn’t sick. It happened mostly at night when he was trying to fall asleep, but one day it even happened during the day at school. It was really scary for him and I was worried. I had planned to discuss it with his pediatrician at his next visit which was in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, I had come across the book Grain Brain by Dr. Perlmutter, a Neurologist and Researcher. In the book I learned how grains and sugar affect the brain.
“I also learned that our brains need fat in order to function properly and that all kinds of brain disorders like anxiety, depression, alzheimer’s, tourette syndrome, and even schizophrenia can be improved and in many cases eliminated with the right diet.”
My son was already on a gluten free diet due to a sensitivity. In addition I began cutting back more on his sugar and grain intake while increasing high fiber fruits and vegetables and healthy fats like pasture raised cream, butter and eggs, wild salmon and sardines, coconut oil, olive oil, and nut and seed butters. The episodes if disoriented vision and hearing that had been happening several times a week completely went away. Several months later, while on a trip to visit relatives, he went off of his high fat, low grain diet and had another episode. This was final proof for me that diet had been the cure. —Heather
As a youngster and through high school I was very active in sports. My diet wasn’t great, but I think because I was so active I never really struggled with my health. Then I went on to college. I didn’t play sports, didn’t workout and ate a lot of fast food and Ramen noodles. About 3 months into my freshman year, I began experiencing panic attacks at night.
“I’d wake up with my heart pounding and this anxious feeling like I wasn’t in control of my own mind or body.”
I began exercising and the attacks became a lot less frequent, but I still struggled on-and-off through college and into my early twenties. I also had bouts of minor depression. Sometimes I’d wake up with this empty sad feeling and I didn’t know why. It never got so bad that I stopped getting out of bed in the morning or wasn’t able to go to school or work, but it did sometimes keep me from pursuing some of the things I was interested in. One day, I was at the grocery store and spotted a raw food cookbook. I had recently heard about raw food from a friend and how it had given her more energy and clarity. I decided to buy the book and give it a try. The personal stories in the book were so convincing that I decided to throw out all of my meat and processed foods and go one hundred percent raw. I was never a very good cook, but the recipes in the book were simple and without using a stove or oven they were really hard to screw up. The 1st few days were tough. My anxiety actually got worse and I had almost no energy and a constant headache. I read that these were normal withdrawal symptoms coming off of sugar and processed foods. They only lasted a few days and then I began to feel great. I had more energy and I was happier. I experimented with juicing fresh fruit and vegetables which is a big part of the raw food diet, but even with mostly vegetable juice, my blood sugar seemed to spike and it brought back some of my anxiety. Now I eat mostly raw food with a little bit of cooked vegetables and animal foods on occasion. I eat almost no processed foods. As I have experimented with different foods over the years I have found that alcohol, caffeine, processed carbohydrates, and high sugar foods (even too much fruit) tend to trigger my anxiety and depression. If I stay away from those foods and exercise every day, I’m happy, productive, and anxiety free. —Missy
My wife came home from the doctor one day with news that she had both high cholesterol and high blood pressure and would need to be on medication for both. She told the doctor that she didn’t want to take the medication and wanted to try lowering them with diet first. Out went all of the food I enjoy including meat, dairy, and everything in a box. She does the shopping and makes the meals so I had no choice but to comply. For two months we ate mostly fruits and vegetables along with some fish and eggs. We also walked every day and joined a gym. I lost 20 pounds and my wife lost 16. I had more energy and I actually wasn’t hungry all the time.
“The thing that was totally unexpected was that I stopped snoring.”
My snoring had been so bad that my wife and I had been sleeping in separate beds for almost 15 years. I fell asleep on the couch one night and my wife was shocked that I wasn’t snoring so she let me back into the bedroom! The best news is that my wife’s cholesterol and blood pressure fell back to normal ranges. We still mostly eat fruits, vegetables, eggs and fish, but we let ourselves go out to eat once a month and have whatever we want. It’s weird, but on the nights we eat out, my wife says I sometimes snore again. —Walter
Functional Nutrition and Bio-Individuality
When looking into functional nutrition as a means of weight loss, to find relief from a health issue, or simply to improve overall health, remember the concept of bio-individuality. Genetics play an important role in determining what foods are appropriate for each of us. Some can efficiently break down starchy vegetables and grains, while others fair better omitting these foods entirely from their diet. Some humans have evolved to be able to digest cow’s milk while others lack the enzymes to do so—And some people are able to extract the nutrients they need from a mostly plant based diet while others need a healthy dose of protein, fat, and other nutrients from animal based foods. The point is that we’re all different and no one diet is best for everyone.
Most of my recipes and articles center around the Paleo philosophy of eating. A strict Paleo diet may not be right for everyone, but because Paleo omits the foods that can cause health problems for many—sugar, grains, dairy, legumes—and includes nutrient dense foods that nourish and heal—fresh vegetables and fruits, wild fish, pasture raised eggs and meat, nuts and seeds—it’s a good starting place for most, while still keeping in mind genetic differences.
Regardless of what lifestyle you choose, be sure it’s filled with plenty of raw fruits and vegetables and daily exercise.