The Diet Detective: Nutrition definitions you should know

All you have to do is turn on the TV or radio or open up a newspaper or magazine, and you'll run smack into one of these terms. And, yes, you might kind of know what they mean, but not exactly. The following are just a few of the many nutrition definitions worth knowing.


Functional foods: "A nutrient or a food that may provide additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition -- for example, yogurt with added bacteria," explains Fran Grossman, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

"Nearly all whole foods are 'functional' in some way. A functional food is not necessarily a healthy one, so make sure to read the fine print," advises Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., an assistant professor at University of North Carolina-Asheville. "For example, the egg industry describes eggs as a functional food, yet whole eggs are very high in cholesterol and should be limited in a healthy diet."

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS): HFCS is regular corn syrup that has been treated with an enzyme that converts glucose into fructose (which is sweeter).

"The final product is a combination of glucose and fructose, usually either 42 percent fructose or 55 percent fructose, with the rest mostly glucose," says Joanne R. Lupton, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University. The 55 percent HFCS is often used to sweeten soft drinks, and the 42 percent HFCS is used in baked goods.

Some experts believe that the higher proportion of fructose to glucose creates unique harm. "It's easier for fructose to be made into fat than for glucose to be made into fat. Additionally, there's a relatively strong literature showing negative consequences of fructose compared to glucose with respect to raising fatty substances in the blood," says Lupton.

It's also been suggested that the rise in obesity in the United States is related to the rise in HFCS consumption. "However, most evidence suggests that the metabolic effects of sucrose and HFCS are pretty similar.

What makes HFCS such a hazard is that corn growth is highly subsidized in the U.S., so HFCS is very inexpensive -- and thus a tempting additive to many foods," says David L. Katz, M.D., associate professor of public health at Yale University School of Medicine and author of The Flavor Point Diet (Rodale, 2006).

Therefore, it's been argued that adding HFCS leads to an increased consumption of foods that are less nutrient dense, leading to greater calorie consumption and eventually weight gain.

Nutrient density: "Nutrient-dense foods provide high amounts of nutrients at a low calorie cost," says Lupton. For a food to be considered nutrient dense, it must provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively fewer calories. Some foods are almost always nutrient dense: whole grains and whole-grain products, fruits, vegetables and legumes.

The opposite of nutrient dense is calorie dense -- foods that mainly supply calories with relatively few nutrients. These are often referred to as "empty calories" -- calories that provide few or no health benefits, adds Katz.

For instance, a quarter-cup of sunflower seeds has about 200 calories while a can of Sprite has only 140 calories. However the sunflower seeds provide 20 percent of the daily value for folate and vitamin B5 and over 25 percent for phosphorous, tryptophan, copper, magnesium and manganese.

Meanwhile, the 200 calories are only about 11 percent of daily calorie needs. So you're getting twice as many nutrients as calories.

Macronutrients: These are the nutrients we need to consume in relatively large amounts to stay healthy. They also provide the energy we need to survive. They include carbs, fat and protein, the three nutrients that constitute the majority of our diet. Macronutrients also supply calories, whereas micronutrients don't.

The general recommendation for adults (which varies according to weight) is 45-65 percent of total daily calories from carbs, 20-35 percent from fat and 10-35 percent from protein.

Micronutrients: These are the nutrients in foods that are in quantities too small to see. "They include vitamins, which are organic compounds our bodies need to function normally, and minerals, which are inorganic compounds our bodies need to function normally," says Katz.

Fortified foods: Fortification is the process by which nutrients and minerals are added to a food that never had them to begin with. One of the most popular examples is milk fortified with vitamin D. In addition to providing milk drinkers with an extra vitamin, the added ingredient increases the rate at which the body absorbs the calcium naturally found in milk.

"Keep in mind that fortified foods should be treated like supplements -- only to help you meet nutrient needs you cannot otherwise meet -- not replace the goal of a balanced, plant-based diet," adds Karen Collins, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Enriched foods: "The generally accepted definition is a food in which nutrients that were lost in processing have been replaced," says Dr. Lupton. For instance, when certain foods are refined, they lose many of the nutrients they had in their original form.

Once the food has been processed, manufacturers reintroduce (usually at higher levels) the vitamins and minerals that have been leached. With flour, thiamin, riboflavin, iron and niacin lost in the translation from wheat to white are often added again to the final white flour.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for The Diet Detective newsletter free at

Copyright 2006 by Charles Stuart Platkin

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