Functional Foods Improve Obesity Related Health Issues, Study Finds

Matthew Nelder's picture

Metabolic Syndrome (MS) is a collection of common metabolic disturbances that are especially prevalent in obese individuals. These metabolic disturbances include high circulating lipid levels, low HDL or “good cholesterol”, high blood pressure and high fasting plasma glucose levels. It is often incredibly challenging to get one of these issues under control, let alone several of them. Luckily, the men and women of the medical research community are tirelessly looking for new answers to the question that is obesity and they have yet again provided us with some answers.

You may be familiar with products known as functional foods. Basically, a functional food is a normal food product (not a supplement powder or pill) which is able to boost health or prevent certain diseases beyond basic nutritional requirements. A common example of a functional food could be something as simple as an orange juice fortified with folic acid.

A paper, which was published this month, reviewed years of scientific data regarding functional foods and their effects on some of the health issues mentioned above. The paper was published in the journal Reviews of Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders by Muhammad Issa Khan and colleagues.

Types of Functional Food

The researchers outlined 4 specific types of functional foods at the beginning of their paper.

  1. The first of these categories was “basic functional foods” which are food products that naturally contain a high amount of the functional ingredient.
  2. The next category was foods that have a large amount of scientific evidence which suggests they can improve health but do not have an approved health claim.
  3. Category number 3 consisted of foods that have been fortified with a specific nutrient.
  4. The last of the 4 groups consisted of whole foods that have been found to reduce the risk of various diseases.

Specific Food and Food Components that were Investigated


Garlic was the first of many functional foods to be investigated. If you’re anything like me, an excuse to use garlic in just about anything is welcomed so I was happy to see this at the top of the list. Garlic has a fairly well known reputation as a great source of sulfur containing compounds such S-allyl-cysteine sulfoxide which can lower cholesterol and improve cardiac health. Garlic was found to induce insulin secretion, and lower the rate at which cholesterol was synthesized in the body.

There were also studies using rabbits and rats as test animals, which found garlic to be effective at lowering diet induced hypercholesterolemia. It should be noted that garlic did have some inconsistencies in data due to the various ways it could processed and prepared. Raw garlic or garlic oil appears to be the most effective forms.


Continuing with the herbs and spice trend, cinnamon was also looked into. This palatable powder is suggested to boost insulin sensitivity by phosphorylating the insulin receptor, thereby decreasing blood sugar levels. Cinnamaldehyde, an active ingredient of cinnamon may also decrease the risk of developing blood clots.

Foods that were high in dietary fiber were next on trial for their efficacy as a functional food and they held their own. It is suggested that by increasing fiber intake by as much as 10g/day can lower the risk of developing heart problems by as much as 14%. If you believe you may be at risk of developing coronary issues, I highly recommend doing your best to get that extra 10g if you suspect you’re not getting enough.

Dietary fiber is capable of lowering cholesterol as well by increasing the secretion of bile acids. The presence of these bile acids stimulates cholesterol formation in the liver where it can be broken and lower total cholesterol levels in the body. Oats in particular were found to be a potential appetite inhibitor and the presence of β-glucans in oats can lower LDL levels by 10-15% with as little as 3g/day.

Of course no functional food investigation would be complete without the inclusion of the now revered omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are derived from a fatty acid known as alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). ALA is broken down into eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid which have been found to effectively improve blood lipid levels. The FDA also approved the claim that fish can be consumed as an effective way to control lipid levels. Of all seed oils, flax seed oil was found to have the highest quantity of omega 3s and has also been shown to be effective in lowering cholesterol.

Coffee at 5:30 PM

Taking a turn to the controversial side of things was coffee. While it has been shown that one of the world’s favorite beverages can reduce blood sugar levels, it does appear to lower insulin sensitivity. That being said, a rather abundant quantity of 7 cups a day was found to lower risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes by as much as 50%! I would certainly try to space these servings out and keep them to the standard 250ml, certainly not 7 large cups from your local coffee shop which may be closer to 750ml.

Soy products also provided some intriguing finds when the research was reviewed. Not only does the regular consumption of soy proteins decreased LDL levels big time, by as much as 12.9% to be exact but it also increases the levels of HDL by as much as 2.9% too. Lowering LDL while simultaneously improving HDL levels can do wonders for maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol. An interesting find the researchers came across when analyzing 8 randomized control studies was that soy isoflavones are capable of lowering cholesterol independent of soy protein.


Lastly, fermented milk products were investigated. Studies from as far back as 30 years show that fermented milk products are highly effective at lowering cholesterol levels. Studies that show anti-cancer effects, particularly in the colon were also examined. Anti-cancer effects are due to probiotics ability to manipulate fecal enzyme activity that plays a role in the development of colon cancer.

The Effects of Functional Foods on the Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome (MS)

To take this review study a step further, the effects of the listed functional foods were researched for their role in the prevention and treatment of specific symptoms of MS. Vitamin B1 (thiamin) was found to be particularly effective in lowering serum cholesterol. It was also noted that the cholesterol lowering properties of soy can be enhanced by the intake of prebiotics. Polyphenols which are abundant in various fruits and vegetables are able to lower cholesterol levels by decreasing the overall absorption of cholesterol, thereby increasing cholesterol excretion.

Effective insulin lowering foods were things such as garlic, oats, and nuts. Various studies with garlic found that it could get blood sugar under control by increasing insulin sensitivity while nuts glycemic control abilities lie in their high levels of antioxidants and minerals. There were also several less common herbal remedies investigated here including Fenugreek, Mangifera Indica tree and Bitter Root. All of these were found to be effective in their raw forms.

Hypertension was another common ailment for which research was essential. It seems that foods high in bioactive proteins consisting of only 2 to 50 amino acids could work quite well in reducing hypertension. There was also evidence that the abundance of the amino acids isoleucine, proline and valine in dairy products such as milk and cheese is effective at reducing hypertension.

Thermogenic effects were evaluated for certain functional foods as well. Since thermogenesis is the process by which heat is produced from catabolism of fats, this process helps lower the rate at which body fat will accumulate. Not surprisingly, one of the best heat producing food components was capsaicin which is the compound responsible for making hot peppers, hot. Furthermore, peppers containing capsaicin also reduce appetite and when combined with caffeine, the effects were even greater. To further increase thermogenin effects, it appears that green tea extract is also an acceptable addition to meals.


Over 120 research papers were reviewed and these are the conclusions drawn from decades of research. It appears that various functional foods are quite effective at managing symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome, but it should also be noted that many of the functional foods that are listed in this study are mainly, what would be considered part of a relatively healthy diet anyway.

I hope this research shows you the weight loss potential that’s sitting on every shelf and in every cooler of your local grocery store. Why not try to include some of the foods mentioned in this article in your meals in the weeks to come? See what works for you, what you enjoy, what you don’t enjoy, and come up with a weight loss attack plan that you can enjoy and commit to for a lifetime.


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