Nutritional Glossary

May 21st, 2009


Understanding all the words and terms nutritionists use can be confusing. That’s why we’ve taken the time to put them all down in one place and define them. Please use the glossary in conjunction with our weekly articles, and let us know if you’d like to see other terms added.

Antioxidant – Substances that help protect against cell damage from free radicals (molecules with one or more unpaired electrons). Well-known antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E, carotenoids and flavonoids.

“Bad” cholesterol – Also known as LDL (low-density lipoproteins). A high level of LDL cholesterol in the blood is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and other lifestyle-related diseases.
BMI - Body Mass Index. A ratio of weight to height, calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters. A BMI under 20 is considered too thin; 21-25 is normal; 25-29 is overweight, and a BMI over 30 is considered obese. [consider a link to an online BMI calculator!]

Cholesterol – An essential substance produced by the body and found in animal products. Often divided into “bad” cholesterol, which increases your risk of heart disease and “good” cholesterol, which reduces your risk. You can lower your "bad’ cholesterol and raise your "good’ cholesterol by eating foods high in fiber and low in saturated fats or by exercising.

Complex carbohydrates – Starches and fiber found in foods such as bread, whole grains, rice, and cereals. This type of carbohydrate is broken down more slowly in the digestion process and offers a steadier, longer-lasting source of energy than simple carbohydrates.

Empty calories – Calories that offer no nutritional value.

Essential fatty acids – Fats your body needs and cannot produce on its own. Classified as omega 3s and omega 6s, these fatty acids must be obtained from food sources such as tuna, salmon, leafy greens, vegetable oils, walnuts, and flax seeds.

Fiber – The part of plant foods that cannot be digested by the body – an aid to digestion. Fiber is found in fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts and grains.

Flavonoid/flavonol – A group of chemical compounds found in plants. In studies, they’ve proven to be anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial. They’re also powerful antioxidants.

Genetic modification (GM) – Human-engineered changes in a plant or animal, whether carried out through traditional breeding or gene splicing.

Glycemic index – A measure of how a given food affects blood-glucose levels. The lower the rating, the slower the absorption and digestion process, which provides a more gradual, healthier infusion of sugars into the bloodstream.

“Good” cholesterol – Also known as HDL (high-density lipoproteins), it carries excess cholesterol from the tissues to the liver. Too low an HDL level is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. You can increase your HDL level by exercising and eating foods high in monounsatured fats, such as avocados, certain vegetable oils and nuts.

Hydrogenation – A chemical process that changes unsaturated oil into a semi-solid saturated fat (ie., making margarine from vegetable oil). The resulting trans fats have been shown to increase “bad” LDL cholesterol and decrease “good” HDL cholesterol.

Macronutrient – Categories of food the body needs in large amounts: fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Micronutrient – Substances the body needs in small amounts, such as vitamins and minerals.

Mineral – Naturally occurring elements that the body needs to function. Some of the 25 minerals we need to sustain good health include calcium, magnesium, sodium and iron.

Organic – Foods, both plant and animal, produced without the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, steroids or antibiotics.

Refined – Processed grains that have their bran and germ removed, resulting in a loss of fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Saturated fat – A type of fat found in animal food products including milk, eggs, meat and butter, as well as coconut and palm oil. Too much saturated fat in a person’s diet can lead to elevated cholesterol levels, which increases heart disease risk.

Simple carbohydrates – Sugars found in honey, molasses, maple syrup, refined sugar, corn syrup, dairy products, fruit, candy, soda, cake and other sweets. They are quickly digested.

S.A.D. – A derogatory term for the Standard American Diet – high in refined, processed foods, empty calories, fat, sugar and sodium, and low in nutrients.

Trans fats – A “bad” fat formed when unsaturated vegetable oil is processed with hydrogen to create an artificially saturated fat. Frequently added to foods to increase their shelf life and flavor stability. Found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils, trans fat raises bad cholesterol, increasing risk for heart disease.

Unsaturated fats – “Good” fats are found in vegetable oils and are capable of reducing elevated blood cholesterol levels. Unsaturated fats are classified as poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated; mono-unsaturated is the healthier variety.

Vitamin – Compounds that are necessary for normal body function. Most are provided by diet. Some are manufactured in the body, or by bacteria residing in the body. Thirteen vitamins are currently considered essential to the human diet.

Whole food – Food that is not processed, refined and does not contain additives.