By Michelle Benson, MS, CN
This is a wonderful question. It is also a complicated question. Not all functional medicine practitioners are the same, as with more general nutritionists or dietitians. The guidelines and expectations of these various titles differ depending on the state or country one lives in. My explanation is based on my assessment and knowledge of these titles in the state of Washington.
As a functional nutritionist, I like to think of myself as pulling weeds to find the root cause of what is causing someone issues. Instead of just pulling the plant on top of the ground, I dig around, as much as necessary, to make sure I grab the entirety of the roots in hopes that the weed doesn’t come back. Functional nutrition is about finding the roots of what is causing symptoms. In addition to finding the cause, we want to know why the issue occurred in the first place. I spend a lot of time with my patients and asking them questions to figure out their causes. Some roots inevitably stay hidden, which may be unable to be pulled or changed such as genetics. However, there is a lot we can still change. Functional lab work is very popular in the functional medicine field (testing for more extensive thyroid panels, hormone testing, organic acid testing, etc.), but these abnormalities are only relevant if we understand how they may be contributing to symptoms and understanding what makes them abnormal in the first place. I could see two patients with similar lab results and develop two very different treatment plans based on what I found out in our discussions. Nutrition is a primary focus in our treatment plans but we aim to address other aspects such as toxic exposures, proper exercise for that specific individual, stress, etc.
More conventional medicine typically treats symptoms and often uses drugs and medicine to treat. Conventional doctors are typically much busier and many just simply don’t have the time to do a deep dive to find a root cause for someone’s issues. Unfortunately, much of the testing done in functional medicine is not supported in the conventional medicine community so oftentimes, more general labs will come back normal whereas functional medicine labs can shed light on upcoming imbalances or issues. This is not to say that there are not some issues with functional labs. Our opinion at HartsSpace is that functional labs give great information, but they don’t necessarily always provide a diagnosis.
What sets functional nutritionists apart from standard nutritionists is this root cause focus. Like I mentioned before, there is a wide scope in these titles and not every provider will act the same. In general, standard nutritionists focus on healthy diets for individuals. They may not dive into the deeper issues. Some nutritionists cling to one type of diet (for example, a ketogenic approach, or paleo diet). Nutritionists may or may not address lifestyle changes like stress management or exercise or sleep whereas these interventions are a strong focus in functional medicine. As for registered dietitians (RD), at least in the state of Washington, they work primarily in hospital settings. They are equipped to deal with individuals with pressing health issues that need intervention immediately. Are these professions needed? ABSOLUTELY!!!! We need them, desperately.
Are all functional nutritionists the same? Nope. Not even close. So what should you look for? Finding a functional nutritionist that works for you can be much like finding a mental health therapist. Essentially, you need to be comfortable with your provider because there is a lot of intimate sharing in these sessions. If you don’t vibe with your provider, you won’t be set up for success from the get-go. How functional nutritionists practice are greatly different depending on their training, their interest, and their intentions. Instead of telling you the red flags to watch out for when finding a provider, I’ll outline my training, interests, and intentions below, which will allow you to decide if we’ll be a good fit or not.
Training: As a provider, I was trained via a wonderful Master’s program in Portland, Oregon. I received my degree from the University of Western States in the Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine program. It is a program I hold dear to my heart and got to learn from some fantastic professors in the field. Professors that cautioned their students that, “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” to remind us that our interest in one subject may seem to apply to everyone and we must work to keep a wide lens when analyzing our patient’s symptoms and labs. Professors that said, “I don’t want to give you a cookie-cutter protocol, I want to teach you to fish” so we could think critically about how patients and how to best help them in their unique situation. I also have a certification in Eating Psychology which equips me with the knowledge that how we eat, how we feel about food and eating, and how we feel about our bodies (and even the world in general!) influence our health.
Interest: I truly love it all! The topics I find most interesting are hormonal and neurotransmitter health, eating psychology, immune responses to food (food sensitivities). More than anything, I love helping my patients feel empowered about their food choices by teaching them how to be flexible and knowledgeable in their food choices. Sometimes that means following a comprehensive elimination diet and other times it means giving patients permission to enjoy a take out meal. It all depends on their situation.
Intentions: It is my mission to help people navigate this confusing world with confidence and grace with themselves. If we could completely re-write the current healthcare model and food systems, we know our population would be healthier, however, these systems are unlikely to change in favor of public health anytime soon. So, how can I as a provider help you to navigate this challenging world, and make informed decisions. Most importantly, how can we navigate to make choices from a place of self-love and empowerment versus restriction or fear. My approach involves asking A LOT of questions, meeting my patients where they are at, and educating them on their unique situations and giving them the knowledge they need to eat and live in a way that supports their mind and body. Many individuals are seeking out functional medicine providers and the field is developing in a major way. I intend to be a provider that moves the field forward, continue learning the latest research, and adjust my approaches accordingly.
I hope that answers any questions you might have. If you have additional questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll be happy to answer and add it to our post