Your go-to nutrition dictionary
Confused by the lingo around healthy eating? Allow WF dietitian Caitlin Reid to get you up to speed on the jargon you need to know…
Add these words to your glossary, stat!
Touted as everything from anti-agers to memory protectors, antioxidants are a super nutrient we all need. They’re the good guys that step into fight cellular damage caused by unstable free radicals (in science speak: molecules that are missing an electron). They neutralise the battleground by offering free radicals support (a spare electron). Without antioxidants, free radicals would be left to damage the cells in your body, increasing ageing and promoting poor health. While your body naturally creates antioxidants, foods like fruit and vegetables also contain them.
All food contains nutrients, and when we talk about the bioavailability of a particular nutrient, we’re referring to how much of it is actually utilised and absorbed in the body. Internal factors like age, gender and nutrient status, as well as external factors such as the food matrix and the chemical form of the nutrient, affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. For instance, you can boost the amount of iron your body absorbs from muesli by adding vitamin C-rich berries. Too easy!
You’ve just got your head around glycaemic index (GI) and now glycaemic load (GL) is popping up in your newsfeed. While GI provides a ranking for how the carbohydrate content of a food affects blood sugar levels, GL takes it a step further and looks at both the quality of carbohydrates (GI value) and quantity (grams per serve) in a meal. After all, it’s the type and the amount of carbohydrates in your meal that affects your blood sugar levels. So, to account for GL when you’re eating, select a low-GI food and watch your portion size.
One of the four nutrients in food that provide the body with kilojoules (aka energy), carbohydrates are our number-one fuel source, particularly during exercise. Carbohydrates can be divided into two groups: sugars and starches. In fact, long chains of sugar molecules make up starches, and when digested, both starches and sugars produce sugar in the body, which provides our brain, muscles, heart, kidneys and lungs with fuel to function. While bread, rice, potato and pasta are well known carb-rich foods, carbohydrates are also found in fruit, yoghurt, milk, corn, lollies, soft drinks and biscuits. But not all carbs are created equal, so choose wholegrains and fresh fruit, and keep sugar-rich treats for special occasions.
These healthy fats are essential fats that your body can’t make, so you need to get them from food. There are three types of omega-3 fats: EPA (eicosapentaenoicacid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are found in oily fish like salmon and tuna, while ALA is found walnuts, linseeds and canola oil. Omega-3 fats are found in cell membranes throughout the body and affect how the cell functions. They play a crucial role in brain function and are also important for a healthy heart, thanks to their ability to help regulate blood clotting and reduce inflammation. Including a serve or two of oily fish each week will ensure you’re getting enough of these fats.
Bacteria generally get a bad rap for causing disease, but there are some bacteria that support health and vitality. These good bacteria are called probiotics and are best known for keeping your gut healthy. Found in fermented foods with active live cultures like yoghurt, as well as in supplement form, probiotics help boost the number of healthy bacteria in the gut. Your digestive system contains more than 400 different species of micro organisms, so you need to have lots of good bacteria to outnumber the bad guys. There are many strains or types of probiotics but the most commonly available ones are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Carbohydrates, protein, fats and alcohol are all examples of macronutrients. Macronutrients provide the body with kilojoules or energy and, with the exception of alcohol, are needed in large amounts for growth, development, metabolism and to keep the body functioning properly. Heard of ‘macro tracking’? Some people keep track of their macronutrient intake in an effort to achieve goals such as toning up or getting slim, but because individual macro needs vary from day to day to account for energy expenditure, this can result in a tiring, regimented eating pattern that’s difficult to follow. Opting for a healthy diet that’s full of fresh whole foods (fruit and veggies, lean meat, wholegrains and oily fish) will ensure you meet your body’s macronutrient needs without worrying about the numbers.
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients, which are essential for the proper functioning of all systems in the body. While we only need small amounts of micronutrients, each vitamin and mineral has its own specific role for keeping the body functioning at its best and they are all vital for good health. Our bodies can’t make micronutrients so we need to make sure we are getting them in the foods we eat. Eating a variety of food from all the food groups will make sure you’re getting enough.
This word is everywhere, but like the Kardashian family, it’s a little overhyped. ‘Superfood’ doesn’t have a technical definition and there’s a lack of evidence to support the term. Foods labelled superfoods are generally nutrient-rich and are thought to provide health benefits as a result, but marketing has seen the word become overused and many claims made can’t be supported by science. The best way to work out whether a food really is ‘super’, is to select foods as close to their original state as possible. These whole foods are minimally processed and will provide you with a range of important nutrients that will keep you fit and healthy.
This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Women’s Fitness.