Functional nutrition is a key factor in achieving fitness and wellness goals. Most people know proper nutrition is important, but they need nutrition education on how the body uses food as fuel. Furthermore, nutrition plays a large role in maintaining optimal health. Proper nutrition can help prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer to name a few common chronic disorders. Therefore, people who are interested in fitness, health, and overall wellness should seek out the services of a functional fitness professional. Fitness professionals, nutritionists, and dietitians should all be able to explain what functional nutrition is and how it might fit into a client’s diet. Here, we’ll discuss what individuals should know when considering a functional nutrition program. 

A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that most participants were more likely to exercise without modifying their diets. Some of their eating habits even became less healthy than before starting a fitness routine, and researchers noted minimal health improvements—if any—with just exercise alone. 

However, another study from the BMC Public Health Journal found that when fitness and functional nutrition are combined, metabolism and energy are increased, blood pressure and cholesterol are reduced, and participants had a healthier body weight. 

But, what is the best nutrition program? A functional nutrition program is proving to be valuable across the board. Here’s the breakdown.

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What Is Functional Nutrition?

Functional nutrition is a holistic way of eating that takes into account a person’s unique genetics, environment, chronic disease risks, physical activities, stress and hormone levels, sleep hygiene, nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities and other lifestyle factors. Call it a functional nutrition assessment. 

With this unique information, you can create an eating plan tailored to individual physiological makeup and specific needs. Ultimately, a functional nutritionist uses food as medicine to achieve optimal wellness and counteract imbalances, toxins, digestive issues or excess weight. 

As the Institute for Integrative Nutrition explains how this differs from what you might see as standard nutrition:

“Standard nutrition focuses on the nutritional facts, such as a food or food group’s ability to promote or damage health (whether it's ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you). Functional nutrition looks at these facts, too, but in the context of an individual’s physiological makeup and how they live, such as how often they move, the quality of their relationships, and their stress level. Essentially, just because a food or food group has been demonstrated as being ‘good for you,’ it doesn’t mean it’s good for you—functional nutrition means one size doesn’t fit all!”

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How Does Functional Nutrition Work? 

Genetics are central to developing a functional nutrition plan for each client. A person’s DNA  determines how they absorb, process and utilize the nutrients they consume. Knowing this will help you and the client figure out important nutritional details like:

  • Whether they’re deficient in certain vitamins or minerals
  • How healthy and efficient their gut microbiome is
  • Whether their hormones are regulated or out of balance
  • If they’re susceptible to bone or muscle weakness
  • If there are underlying conditions that can be improved with dietary changes

Once you understand these genetic DNA components, you can customize a functional nutrition plan for the client’s macronutrient (proteins, fats, carbs) and micronutrient (vitamins, minerals) needs. 

Before creating a nutritional plan, be sure that you’re still working within your scope of practice depending on your role. You may need to refer your clients to a dietitian. This is especially the case if they have a health condition or present with any symptoms. In these cases, nutrition becomes a form of treatment and should be thought of like medicine. However, fitness professionals and behavioral nutrition coaches can (and should) work closely with the dietitian or medical practitioner to achieve health goals.If you are creating the client’s functional nutrition plan, it’s important to remember that some of the daily requirements are based on measurable percentages, while others are more loosely based on each individual person. Here’s a nutrient breakdown to follow when creating a functional nutrition plan:


For clients with a normal genetic constitution (genotype) for protein utilization, this macronutrient should make up 15 to 30 percent of their daily caloric intake. For clients with an enhanced genotype (those who lose weight more efficiently with high protein levels), it should be 25 to 30 percent of their daily caloric intake. 


For clients with a normal genotype for fat utilization, this macronutrient should be eaten in moderation, but there’s no exact percentage, as it varies from one person to the next based on the other lifestyle factors listed above. For clients with a low genotype (those who are more susceptible to excess fat storage in the body), it should be no more than 15 to 25 percent of their daily caloric intake.    


For clients with a normal genotype for carb utilization, this micronutrient should be eaten in moderation, but like with fats, the amount will also vary from one person to the next based on lifestyle factors. For clients with an enhanced genotype, it can be as much as 65 percent of their daily caloric intake. For clients with a low genotype, the amount should be carefully monitored with a focus on complex carbs (such as beans and whole grains) instead of simple carbs (such as processed grains, starches and high-glycemic foods).

Vitamins and Minerals

For clients who are deficient in common micronutrients such as Vitamins A, B6, B9, B12, C, D, calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium, boost their intake of vegetables and fruits with a high concentration of those nutrients. For example, low iron and B12 can cause anemia which often leads to fatigue, while low calcium weakens bone density which can increase the chances of fitness-related injuries. So to maximize both nutrition and workout performance, ensure that your client’s eating plan includes these essential vitamins and minerals.  

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What Are Some Other Functional Nutrition Tips?

Beyond genetics, functional nutrition looks at all aspects of the client’s body, as well as external influences that can affect the body. When developing a functional nutrition plan, it’s important to take a holistic approach to evaluating lifestyle factors and help clients make adjustments where necessary. 

Here are some nutrition education tidbits you can offer clients who are looking for functional nutrition.

Emphasize a colorful variety of whole foods

Teach your client how to fill their plate with nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plant-based proteins (nuts, seeds, beans, lentils), or lean fish and poultry. And, help them minimize their intake of refined sugars, trans or saturated fats, simple carbs, excess sodium and artificial ingredients that will cause health complications and stall weight loss efforts. 

Select foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome

According to Dr. David Heber at UCLA Health, “seventy percent of the immune system is located in the gut, [and] nutrition is a key modulator of immune function.” Processed foods (like the ones listed above) can harm the diversity and composition of bacteria in the gut which leads to inflammation and chronic gastrointestinal issues. So it’s crucial to help the client choose foods rich in fiber to strengthen this microbiome and elevate immune function.  

Combine nutrition with other positive lifestyle habits

Functional nutrition takes into account numerous lifestyle factors. In addition to healthy eating habits, create a plan that also promotes stress management, adequate sleep, consistent exercise, optimal hydration and other practices that will help to increase quality of life.

Take Your Functional Nutrition Knowledge to the Next Level  

You can get more functional nutrition education and how to use diet to boost clients results with a degree from Lionel University.

Behavioral nutrition counseling is just one of the things you’ll learn as part of your exercise degree program with Lionel. In fact, a degree in exercise science teaches you more than just how to be a personal trainer. You’ll learn ALL the factors that impact a client’s ability to move and be fit. It’s a holistic approach you can only get with these types of degrees. Regardless of whether you’re pursuing an associates degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree, at Lionel you earn multiple certifications and specializations along the way. This means you can start working as a fitness and nutrition professional even before graduation day! And, with the help of financial aid, earning your exercise science degree is even more of a possibility. 

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