Functional Foods: Performance Enhancement Superstars

It was in the 1980s that the Japanese government created a legal definition for a category of foods called “Functional Foods”, which were defined as having health benefits beyond the basic nutritional functions provided by food. 

Wait, whuuut?

What Are Functional Foods?(1)

Essentially, food provides your body with the nutrition needed to maintain life. But certain foods have substances that can enhance your systems to go beyond just regular function and attain health benefits. Such food is called Functional food. They are also commonly referred to as performance foods, superfoods, or fortified foods. Examples of functional foods include juices or cereals with added vitamins, probiotics, and nutraceuticals, among others.

Functional foods don’t necessarily need to naturally contain beneficial substances; they may be naturally present or added during production. The term ‘functional foods’ also encompasses the foods that have had a potentially harmful component removed, such as gluten-free and sugar-free products.

Immunity-boosting foods, protein-rich ingredients, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods, probiotics, dietary supplements, and nutraceuticals, etc, are some examples of functional foods. The idea of food serving to increase the health status of individuals originated in the 1980s, when the Japanese authority for food safety created separate regulations for these food products.

Legal Regulation of Functional Foods

  • Japan: The Japanese Government classifies functional foods as FOSHU(2) – Foods for Specified Health Use. These are food items that contain substances that give the product health-enhancement properties, as long as the claim is substantiated by scientific nutrition research(3).
  • India: The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) refers to functional foods as ‘foods for special dietary uses’, nutraceuticals, or health supplements.(4) According to FSSAI, some examples of functional foods are:
  1. Plants or botanicals, or their parts, in powdered form or as extracts in water or ethyl alcohol or hydroalcoholic extract;
  2. Vitamins, minerals, metals, proteins, or their compounds, or amino acids, or enzymes (permitted within the recommended daily allowance for Indian populations);
  3. Animal origin products;
  4. Dietary supplements in the form of powders, granules, tablets, capsules, liquids, jelly, and other dosage forms but not parenterals (i.e., administered in someplace excluding the mouth and alimentary canal), and are meant for oral administration.

Note: Products that claim to cure or mitigate any particular disease or condition are not considered as Functional Foods, per the FSSAI.

More information about the FSSAI’s stance on functional foods can be found here and here.

  • U.S.A: The United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) has no clear legal definition of functional foods, but does regulate the use and sale of labels that claim to be functional. It is up to the consumers to evaluate whether what they are buying is efficient or not.

Functional foods are often the main source of nutrients for some people. Certain nutrients like Vitamin D or Iodine don’t naturally occur in many foods, and many people rely on fortified foods such as milk with added Vitamin D or Iodized salt to get their daily quota. These kinds of situations make a good case for supplement usage, as it is difficult to meet your daily requirements through food alone, and fortified foods aren’t the best option. Especially when foods may not contain the most bioavailable forms of nutrients. This article provides a useful rundown of reasons why supplements and nutraceuticals can be a more practical option.

Using Functional Foods

Once you’ve understood what functional foods are and how they work, optimising your performance and energy comes down to the simple matter of using the right functional foods. Different functional foods serve different purposes; some can be used to aid fat loss, while others could help to bulk up. Some could help with specific system improvements such as gut-friendly or liver-friendly foods, while others can have overall health benefits.

To optimise energy and performance, foods rich in the nutrients that can help to do that are the way to go. Some of the best nutrients for energy are:

  • Magnesium
  • Protein
  • B-Complex
  • Vitamin D3
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Co-Q10

Functional Foods to Optimise Energy and Performance:


→ An essential nutrient, this mineral is often called the fifth and forgotten electrolyte. It regulates over 3000 enzymatic processes in the body, and the importance of getting enough of it can’t be overstated. The problem is that most people don’t think about Magnesium when they think about important minerals (Iron tends to hog that spotlight…), hence “the forgotten electrolyte”.

But what makes Magnesium so important, and how is it relevant to performance? It’s because it has functional advantages that just can’t be beat.


  1. Improves Energy Levels: Magnesium is a fantastic and healthy energy booster.

  2. Relaxes Muscles: Magnesium is an electrolyte. Electrolytes are involved in conducting nerve signals and muscle contractions. In this way it helps the muscles relax and can prevent cramping.

  3. Improves Heart Health: Magnesium is an important electrolyte involved in the process of moving potassium and calcium into cells, which helps muscular function. It also interacts with cells that respond to electrical impulses. This is what makes Magnesium so beneficial for heart health, as the heart is a muscular organ that beats depending on electrical impulses. Magnesium helps to improve and maintain a healthy heart rhythm. It was found that supplementing magnesium helped with reducing the risk of heart diseases, but major studies found inconsistent results and possibilities of adverse side effects from magnesium overdose.(9) It is therefore crucial to understand the serum magnesium levels in your blood and consult with your healthcare provider, and to follow the dosage mentioned on the supplement packaging.

  4. Improves Sleep: Getting good quality and sufficient rest is essential to achieve great performance. Magnesium helps to improve the quality of sleep and relaxes you, making it easier to sleep as well.

  5. Improves Blood Pressure: Magnesium is a key mineral involved in maintaining healthy blood pressure.

There aren’t many practical sources of magnesium in food. Most plant sources that can help you meet the Recommended Dietary Allowance (400mg) of Magnesium are loaded with antinutrients. You would have to eat a lot of these foods, or eat a combination of them, just to meet your RDA. Animal and marine sources, on the other hand, are rich in many essential nutrients and can be easily sourced.


  1. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or halibut
  2. Dark Chocolate
  3. Bananas
  4. Magnesium supplements (the most bioavailable ones are always the easiest to absorb. In this case, Magnesium Bisglycinate supplements.)
  5. Almonds (ensure to soak almonds overnight and roast them to remove antinutrients)
  6. Boiled Spinach


protein foods



→ Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies. Most of our cells are built from proteins and it is an important nutrient involved in countless processes in the body, most well known for its role in tissue building and repair. It is not usually an energy source for the body, which primarily relies on carbohydrates, fats, and sugars for energy. However, if the body is deprived of sufficient calories from the primary sources, protein ketones are used.(10) Although it is not the go-to option for energy, protein is crucial for performance. It helps muscle recovery and is popularly consumed post-workouts and exercise.

BENEFITS OF PROTEIN(10,11,12,13,14,15,16):

  1. Boosts Metabolism: Protein helps boost the body’s metabolic processes and helps burn calories more efficiently.

  2. Muscle Growth and Recovery: Proteins are dense in BCAAs – Branched Chain Amino Acids. These help to synthesize muscle tissues and help in recovery, especially post-workouts – making them a great addition to your functional diet.

  3. Keeps You Satiated: Protein helps to feel full for longer. It reduces Ghrelin levels – which is the hormone responsible for hunger. Increasing your protein intake can help reduce overeating and curb down on snacking.

  4. Improves Bone Mass: Long term studies have shown that contrary to popular belief, high protein intake was actually correlated with better bone health.

  5. Aids Immunity: Protein helps the body to make antibodies and also helps with carrying oxygen throughout the body.

Protein can easily be accessed through foods. There are various classes of protein, such as High Biological Value and Low Biological Value proteins. If the protein source has sufficient amino acids, it qualifies as HBV. It is not just the amount of protein that one must consider when planning to increase intake, but also the quality. The best quality protein comes from animal sources. Plant protein sources like legumes tend to be of low biological value.(17)


  1. Poultry
  2. Red Meat
  3. Organ Meat
  4. Eggs
  5. Fish
  6. Essential Amino Acids
  7. Protein powders

B VITAMINS(18,19,20,21)

→ The B-Vitamin family is responsible for a multitude of roles within our bodies. This water-soluble vitamin family is extremely important, for adults as well as infants. It’s one of the building blocks of our bodies, involved in the synthesis of both RNA and DNA. The family of B-Vitamins technically includes many vitamins, but when people talk about B-Vitamins, they are only referring to 8 of them, viz.:

  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (Folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)

You’ll notice that 4 vitamins, i.e. Vitamin B4 (Adenine), B8 (Inositol), B10 (Para-aminobenzoic Acid, or PABA), and B11 (folic acid) are missing from this list. That’s because these 4 vitamins are either produced by our bodies or are not considered essential for life, so they were ousted from the list of “vitamins” by the science community. They are no longer considered true vitamins.

[Writer’s note: The good news is that Pluto is no longer lonely in the scientific has-been corner! :) ]

The B-Vitamins that
are still considered vitamins, though, form a family called Vitamin B-Complex. They’re some of the most essential micronutrients for the human body. Vitamin B deficiencies can result in various disorders ranging in severity from anemia to Beriberi to dementia and other cognitive disorders.


  1. Increases Energy: B vitamins help with metabolism, and are a key component of the Krebs Cycle, which produces energy. Getting enough B vitamins on a regular basis can keep one invigorated through the day if they meet their RDAs

  2. Provides Nervous System Support: B vitamins, especially B1, are involved in nerve function, DNA and RNA synthesis, and energy production.

  3. Improves Cognitive Function: Many B vitamins are involved in the regulation of neurotransmitters and nerve function, energy production, and are necessary for proper cognitive function, especially in infants and pregnant mothers.

  4. Supports Blood Formation: B vitamins, especially B6, B9, and B12 are involved in the formation of blood cells, alongside being vital for neurological functions.

  5. Improves Immunity: All B vitamins, and B6 especially, play a key role in keeping the immune system strong and the body functioning ideally.

Inositol or Vitamin B8 can also have health benefits when taken supplementally, such as helping with blood sugar control, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and mental health, among others.(22)


Most foods that are rich in B-vitamins are of animal origin, which is a major reason as to why vegan and vegetarian populations tend to be deficient in B vitamins (especially B12). If you cannot incorporate the natural food sources of B vitamins into your diet, it is highly recommended to get a (safe and effective) B complex supplement. Functional foods that can be an effective source of B-Vitamins include:

  1. Pork
  2. Chicken
  3. Liver and organ meats
  4. Eggs
  5. Beef
  6. Mushrooms
  7. Fish (Especially seafood, like salmon and tuna)
  8. B-Complex Supplements
  9. Avocados


Here’s a fun fact: Vitamin D is considered an essential vitamin, even though it breaks some of the cardinal requirements that qualify a substance as a vitamin!

An essential vitamin is classified as a substance that is essential for human health, which cannot be produced by the body, and therefore must be obtained through dietary sources.

Vitamin D can be produced by the body, it is essential for human health but it is absent from almost all foods, being naturally available only in very few foods, making it hard to obtain through diet. Despite all this, it is considered a vitamin. But now in the modern world, you can consume Vitamin D from supplements, which are considered dietary products, re-earning Vitamin D its deserved title.(23)

This lack of natural availability makes it very easy for humans to be deficient in Vitamin D, which can lead to a plethora of issues in our lives and daily functioning. There is now a worrying increase in Vitamin D deficiency in global populations.(24,25,26)


  1. Reduces Fatigue: Fatigue is a common symptom of Vitamin D deficiency, and many people reported feeling like their fatigue has improved after regularly consuming Vitamin D.(27)

  2. Increases Energy: Vitamin D can help the body to increase more energy by helping the mitochondria, i.e. the powerhouse of cells. This improves metabolic processes and results in increased energy output.(28,29)

  3. Improves Bone Health: Vitamin D is the cornerstone of strong bones. It helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are crucial for building and maintaining healthy bones and bone mass.(30,31,32)

  4. Cardiovascular Benefits: Vitamin D helps not just bones and teeth, but also muscles. The heart is essentially a large muscular organ, and it includes receptors for Vitamin D. The immune and inflammatory cells that play a role in the pathogenesis of heart diseases are also regulated by Vitamin D. It also helps control blood pressure.(30)

Vitamin D does not naturally occur in a lot of foods. Humans can get it through sunlight, but climate and lifestyle factors affect the absorption of this vitamin. Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning it gets dissolved in fat molecules during digestion and the body needs proper reuptake of these molecules to absorb Vitamin D. If an individual has poor gut health, engages in drinking and/or smoking, and other harmful lifestyle factors, this reuptake of Vitamin D gets affected. This makes it smarter to get Vitamin D through supplements that can directly give your body its daily dose of D.


  1. Fish
  2. Egg Yolks
  3. Red Meat
  4. Vitamin D supplements (Proper Vitamin D absorption occurs in the presence of the menaquinone form of Vitamin K, so we recommend a Vitamin D3 + K2 supplement.)


Omega-3 Fatty Acids (O3FAs) have a very positive effect on human health. They’re considered essential fats, which the body needs but cannot make on its own, so they must be obtained from dietary sources.(33)

Omega-3 Fatty Acids is a term that refers to multiple Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids or PUFAs, which may be long chain or short chain. The 3 main ones in Omega-3 are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) → long chain
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) → long chain
  • Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA) → short chain

Of these, EPA and DHA are considered to be superior(34) to ALA in terms of health benefits. In the body, it is possible for consumed ALA to be converted into EPA and DHA, but this is a very inefficient process and the conversion rate is low. EPA can also be converted into DHA, but this is also inefficient. And so it is more practical to just consume EPA and DHA directly from food or supplements.


  1. Heart Healthy: Omega-3 Fatty Acids are beneficial for cardiovascular health. They help maintain regular heart rhythm, increase HDL cholesterol, reduce blood clotting, and reduce inflammation (one of the root causes of heart disease, per functional medicine)(33,35)

  2. Reduces Blood Pressure: Omega-3 Fatty Acids also lower heart rate and blood pressure, while improving blood vessel function, and lowering triglycerides.(33)

  3. Beneficial for Brain Health: Consuming Omega-3 Fatty Acids improves blood flow to the brain and is also beneficial for learning, memory, overall cognitive well-being. DHA is a dominant Omega-3 FA in the brain, and impacts neurotransmitters and neurological health. Researchers are also considering Omega-3 Fatty Acids as a possible treatment for Traumatic Brain Injuries.(36,37)

  4. Boosts Mood: Studies have found that Omega-3 Fatty Acids may have a helpful role in improving moods. Studies find that supplementing with fish oil supplements (a rich source of EPA and DHA) produced almost similar results to taking antidepressants for depression.(38,39,40)

EPA and DHA are obtained from marine sources, while ALA is obtained from plant sources like nuts and seeds. The problem with plant sources is that they are loaded with antinutrients that actively hinder the absorption of nutrients.


  1. Krill
  2. Oysters
  3. Cod Liver
  4. Fish – salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna
  5. Shrimp
  6. Soaked and roasted walnuts
  7. Omega-3 Supplements – Fish oil, or Krill Oil Supplements which contain more antioxidants
  8. Eggs(41)
  9. Meat from grass-fed animals(41)


Coenzyme Q10 or Co-Q10 is another nutrient essential for heart health. Thanks to its ubiquitous presence in living organisms, it is also often called ‘ubiquinone’. One report suggests that “CoQ10 is essential for the health of virtually all human tissues and organs”. It is also recommended for the elderly and those who want to avoid heart disease. CoQ10 deficiencies can lead to multisystem dysfunctions, as CoQ10 has various functions in the body.(42,43)

BENEFITS OF CO-Q10(43,44,45)

  1. Helps Heart Health: CoQ10 may be beneficial in improving heart health, especially in the elderly whose bodies produce low amounts of CoQ10. It is beneficial against oxidative stress, which is one of the root causes of cardiovascular diseases.

  2. Boosts Brain Health: CoQ10 deficiency was associated with age-related matter degeneration (AMD) which can cause issues with eyesight and brain function. Consuming CoQ10 could be beneficial in fighting these detrimental health effects of losing CoQ10 as we age. It could also help reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers.

  3. Improves Physical Performance: CoQ10 helps against oxidative stress and improves mitochondrial function in cells, which boosts energy and performance. It also reduces fatigue, further contributing to energy improvement.

  4. Powerful Antioxidant: Coenzyme Q10 is a natural and powerful antioxidant that helps protect the body against Oxygen Reactive Species.

CoQ10 is produced within the body, but the amount produced reduces as we age. Having other vitamin deficiencies can also reduce the amount of CoQ10 present in our bodies. This makes it important for us to compensate for our RDAs by consuming it either from food or through supplements.


  1. Organ Meat
  2. Fatty Fish like Salmon and Mackerel
  3. Beef
  4. Chicken
  5. Pork
  6. Co-Q10 Supplements (For performance enhancement and possible help in weight loss, a CoQ10 supplement with Levocarnitine would be best.)

The Bottom Line

Functional foods are foods that serve additional health purposes besides just the basic maintenance of life through nutrition. These foods and supplements, when used with the right strategy, could be used for performance enhancement by athletes and others looking to up their workout game.

It will most probably take a lot of trial and error, and consulting a health professional is always better than going about performance enhancement alone. But by narrowing down the nutrients that can help improve energy levels, reduce fatigue, and enhance performance, one can start integrating functional foods that have those nutrients into their diet. At the end of the day, you are what you eat – and regardless of your goals, eating healthy is always a smart choice.


  1. Functional Foods
  2. Foods for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU)
  3. Functional foods in Japan
  4. Functional Food under FSSAI
  5. How Magnesium Keeps Your Heart Rhythm Healthy.
  6. How Magnesium Supports Heart Health
  7. Does Magnesium Help With Heart Palpitations? – Cleveland Clinic
  8. Key minerals to help control blood pressure - Harvard Health
  9. Magnesium and Cardiovascular Disease
  10. Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats - Disorders of Nutrition - MSD Manual Consumer Version.
  11. 3 Key Benefits of Protein for Health and Athletic Performance.
  12. Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training - PMC
  13. 10 Science-Backed Reasons to Eat More Protein
  14. Dietary protein: an essential nutrient for bone health
  15. Protein: Why Your Body Needs It
  16. Protein intake and athletic performance
  17. High and Low Biological Value Protein Foods | Eufic
  18. B Vitamins: MedlinePlus
  19. Long Lost B Vitamins - B4, B8, B10, B11 - Clear Path Wellness.
  20. A Brief History of Vitamins. Ever wondered why vitamin B4 and B8… | by MT | Age of Awareness | Medium.
  21. Vitamin B Complex: Benefits, Side Effects, Dosage, Foods & More
  22. Inositol: Benefits, Side Effects and Dosage
  23. Vitamin D and your health: Breaking old rules, raising new hopes - Harvard Health
  24. Is vitamin D deficiency a major global public health problem? - PMC
  25. Global and regional prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in population-based studies from 2000 to 2022: A pooled analysis of 7.9 million participants.
  26. High prevalence of vitamin D deficiency among the South Asian adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis
  27. Effect of vitamin D3 on self-perceived fatigue - PMC
  28. Does Vitamin D Give You Energy? Here's What We Know | Ro.
  29. Vitamin D proven to boost energy – from within the cells
  30. Vitamin D | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  31. Vitamin D - NHS.
  32. Calcium and Vitamin D: Skeletal and Extraskeletal Health - PMC.
  33. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution | The Nutrition Source
  34. Understanding Omega-3: Why EPA & DHA are superior to ALA - Vegetology
  35. 17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  36. Omega-3 fatty acids and their neuro-protective abilities following brain injury
  37. Effects of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Brain Functions: A Systematic Review - PMC
  38. How Omega-3 Fish Oil Affects Your Brain and Mental Health
  39. Omega-3 fatty acids for mood disorders - Harvard Health.
  40. Possible antidepressant mechanisms of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids acting on the central nervous system - PMC
  41. 12 Foods That Are Very High in Omega-3
  42. Coenzyme Q10: The essential nutrient - PMC
  43. Cellular Consequences of Coenzyme Q10 Deficiency in Neurodegeneration of the Retina and Brain - PMC
  44. Foods High in CoQ10
  45. 9 Benefits of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)


India: FSSAI Publishes Frequently Asked Questions on Functional Foods - Health Supplements and Foods for Special Medical Purposes | USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

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iThrive Essentials Krill Oil Omega 3 Supplement with Phospholipids and Astaxanthin (60 Capsules)

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