With a plethora of nutrition buzzwords popping up these days, you might be caught in a web of words that’s overwhelming. Though there’s no one definition of clean, healthy, or natural when it comes to foods, let’s take a look at some of the most popular words today.
Antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium help prevent or delay cell damage by removing or calming potentially damaging agents naturally produced in the body. In a nutshell, they help protect our cells and may play a role in preventing some chronic diseases. Antioxidants are abundantly present in fruits and vegetables.
Next time you open a can of beans, keep the packing liquid and you’ll be in on this trend. Aquafaba is the starchy water leftover from a can of beans, typically chickpeas or white beans. It can be whipped into a meringue-like consistency and used as a substitute for egg whites in sweet and savory dishes.
This family of vegetables includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale. In short, it describes anything in the family Brassicaceae (also called Cruciferae). So called because their petals form the shape of a cross, they are touted for their healthful properties, including high fiber, antioxidants and glucosinolates, which research has shown can affect some types of cancer.
Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat and other grains. It is found in any food made with wheat, rye or barley, as well as in many processed foods. Foods labeled “gluten-free” do not contain these proteins.
Often called IIFYM (if it fits your macros), this trendy way of eating focuses on meeting certain carbohydrate, protein and fat marks each day. Many focus on limiting carbohydrates to a certain number and allows for any food to fit. But take note, just because a donut fits a certain carbohydrate threshold doesn’t necessarily make it the healthiest choice. Not all carbs are created equal.
This rising star in the diet world is reminiscent of Atkins and other low- to no-carb diets. The keto diet is a very low-carbohydrate (less than 50 grams/day), high-fat diet designed to put the body into a state of ketosis, in which the body is forced to use fat and some amino acids for energy.
These are carbohydrates, protein and fats (aka “macros”). These big three are essential, and you shouldn’t eliminate any from your diet long term.
Metabolism is the collective term to describe all chemical processes that keep the body functioning and alive. Those processes require energy in the form of calories, which is where the measure of calorie burn comes into play.
Vitamins and minerals make up the collection of micronutrients that play a critical role in keeping the body functioning.
The MIND Diet, or the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, focuses on brain-healthy foods with a goal to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. A combination of the reduced-sodium DASH diet for hypertension and a traditional Mediterranean diet, MIND Diet followers eat more green leafy vegetables (and vegetables in general), nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine, while reducing red meat, butter, cheese, sweets and fried foods.
These fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid both found in marine oils. They have been shown to play an important role in basic metabolism and brain functioning.
Organic foods are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. They also can’t contain genetically modified organisms, among other requirements. The United States Department of Agriculture sets and regulates organic standards. Organic doesn’t guarantee a food is healthful. Organic sugar is still a form of added sugar.
The Paleo way of eating is based on the hunter-gatherer concept. Followers stick to plenty of fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood and nuts while eliminating beans, grains and dairy.
Phytonutrients are beneficial compounds such as antioxidants and polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables; they’re simply nutrients found in plants, as “phyto” means “plant.” Each one has different functions and benefits — many yet to be discovered. Though not the only indicator, you might be clued in to the types of phytonutrients present based on the color of a food. Orange foods like pumpkin and sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, while red foods like watermelon and tomatoes are brimming with lycopene.
In the simplest form, prebiotics feed the good gut bacteria. These good bacteria helpers are found in food such as sunchokes, chicory, bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic and honey.
These good bacteria or live cultures populate the gut and help promote digestive and immune health. You’ll find an abundance of probiotics in yogurt and kefir and other fermented foods such as tempeh, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Made from whole-grain seeds, sprouted grains generally offer the same or slightly better nutrition benefits compared with grains that aren’t sprouted. Sprouted grains may be slightly higher in protein and soluble fiber, and some nutrients like folate and vitamin C. They may also be easier to digest than non-sprouted grains.
There’s no official definition for superfoods. The term refers to foods that can help you get the most nutrition bang per bite. Compared with some other foods, they deliver more fiber, vitamins and minerals. Though you’ll see many powders and supplements staking a superfood claim, everyday foods like berries, avocado and cruciferous vegetables often top the list.
The Whole 30 plan eliminates sugar, grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol and any food additives, as well as refined and highly processed foods, for a full 30 days.
Some of these buzzwords here have been around for years while others are new. Some are focused on general health, while others point to dieting and weight loss. However we stir the gluten-free, Paleo and Whole 30-friendly alphabet soup of words, it still boils down to finding a way of eating that is sustainable and works for your lifestyle. The goal is lifelong health.
> What Are Prebiotics — and the Best Ways to Eat Them
> The Beginners Guide to “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM)
> Ask the Dietitian: What’s More Important for Weight Loss — Calories or Macros?
Originally published March 2017, updated October 2022
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