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Glossary of Terms Related to Healthy Eating, Obesity, Physical Activity, and Weight Control


Added sugars These sugars, syrups, and other caloric sweeteners are added when foods are processed or prepared. Added sugars do not include sugars that occur naturally, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk. Names for added sugars include brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose (when not naturally occurring), fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose (when not in milk or dairy products), maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and turbinado sugar.

Adipose tissue (add-ih-POSE) Fat tissue in the body.

Aerobic physical activity Aerobic (or endurance) physical activities use large muscle groups (back, chest, and legs) to increase heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time. Examples include bicycling, brisk walking, running, and swimming. Federal guidelines recommend that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of aerobic activity a week [see definition for physical activity].

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Bariatric surgery (bear-ee-AT-ric) Also known as gastrointestinal surgery or weight-loss surgery, this is surgery on the stomach and/or intestines to help patients with extreme obesity lose weight. Bariatric surgery is a weight-loss method used for people who have a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more. Surgery may also be an option for people with a BMI between 35 and 40 who have health problems related to obesity like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

BMI See body mass index.

Body mass index (BMI) BMI is a measure of body weight relative to height. The BMI tool uses a formula that produces a score often used to determine if a person is underweight, at a normal weight, overweight, or obese. For adults, a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy (or "normal"). A person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and a person with a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.

Children grow at different rates at different times, so it is not always easy to tell if a child is overweight. BMI charts for children compare their height and weight to other children of their same sex and age. For children ages 2 to19, those who are at or above the 85th percentile are considered overweight. Those who are at or above the 95th percentile are considered obese.

For a web link to online tools you can use to calculate the BMIs of children and adults, see the Resources section.

Bone-strengthening activity A physical activity that promotes the growth and strength of bones. Examples include weight lifting and push-ups.

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Calorie (CAL-or-ee) A unit of energy in food. Carbohydrates, fats, protein, and alcohol in the foods and drinks we eat provide food energy or "calories." Carbohydrates and proteins provide 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7 calories per gram.

Calorie balance The balance between calories you get from eating and drinking and those you use up through physical activity and body processes like breathing, digesting food, and, in children, growing.

Carbohydrate (kar-bow-HY-drate) A "carb" is a major source of energy for your body. Your digestive system changes carbohydrates into blood glucose (sugar). Your body uses this sugar to make energy for cells, tissues, and organs, and stores any extra sugar in your liver and muscles for when it is needed. If there is more sugar than the body can use, the liver may also break the sugar down further and store it as body fat.

There are two kinds of carbohydrates—simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates include sugars that are a part of some foods, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk, as well as sugars that may be added when foods are processed or prepared [see definition of added sugars]. Complex carbohydrates include those that come from legumes, such as peas or beans, starchy vegetables, and whole grain breads and cereals. Many complex carbohydrates are good sources of fiber.

Cholesterol (ko-LES-te-rol) Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is made by your body and found naturally in animal foods such as dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood. Foods high in cholesterol include dairy fats, egg yolks, and organ meats such as liver. Cholesterol is needed to carry out functions such as hormone and vitamin production. It is carried through the blood by lipoproteins [see definition].

Two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol in the blood: low-density lipoproteins (LDL, often called "bad cholesterol") and high-density lipoproteins (HDL or "good cholesterol"). When cholesterol levels are too high, some of the cholesterol may stick to the walls of your arteries. This build-up is called plaque. Over time, plaque may narrow your arteries or even block them. High levels of cholesterol in the blood may increase your risk of heart disease.

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Diabetes (dye-ah-BEE-teez) A person with this disease has blood glucose, or sugar, levels that are above normal levels. Glucose comes from the foods you eat. Insulin is a hormone that helps the glucose get into your cells to give them energy. Diabetes occurs when the body does not make enough insulin or does not use the insulin it makes. Over time, having too much sugar in your blood may cause serious problems. It may damage your eyes, kidneys, and nerves, and may cause heart disease and stroke. Regular physical activity, weight control, and healthy eating may help you control your diabetes. You should also follow your health care provider's advice and, when asked to, monitor your blood sugar level and take prescribed medication. [Also see gestational diabetes, type 1 diabetes, and type 2 diabetes.]

Diet What a person eats and drinks. Any type of eating plan.

Dietary sodium Also called "salt," sodium helps your nerves and muscles work properly. Table salt is made up of sodium and chloride. Your kidneys control how much sodium is in your blood, releasing it when needed and flushing out any excess. If too much sodium builds up in your blood, this may raise your blood pressure. High blood pressure [see definition] is linked to serious health problems. Federal dietary guidelines [see Resources] recommend that most people limit their intake of sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) a day (less than 1 teaspoon of salt).

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Energy expenditure The amount of energy that you use measured in calories. You use calories to breathe, send blood through your blood vessels, digest food, maintain posture, and be physically active.

Exercise A type of physical activity that is planned and structured. Exercise is done on purpose to improve or maintain health, physical fitness, and/or physical performance.

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Fat A major source of energy in the diet, fat helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. Some kinds of fats, especially saturated fats and trans fatty acids [see definitions], may raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk for heart disease. Other fats, such as unsaturated fats [see definition], do not raise blood cholesterol. Fats that are in foods are combinations of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fatty acids [see definitions].

Flexibility The range of motion possible at a joint. Flexibility exercises enhance the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion.

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Gastrointestinal surgery (to treat obesity) See bariatric surgery.

Gestational diabetes (jest-AY-shun-ul) (dye-ah-BEE-teez) A type of diabetes that can occur when a woman is pregnant. In the second half of her pregnancy, a woman may have glucose (sugar) in her blood at a level that is higher than normal. In about 95 percent of cases, blood sugar returns to normal after the pregnancy is over. However, women who develop gestational diabetes are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes later in life. [Also see diabetes and type 2 diabetes.]

Glucose (GLU-kos) Glucose is a major source of energy for our bodies and a building block for many carbohydrates [see definition]. The food digestion process breaks down carbohydrates in foods and drinks into glucose. After digestion, glucose is carried in the blood and goes to body cells where it is used for energy or stored.

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HDL See high-density lipoprotein.

Healthy weight Healthy weight status is often based on having a body mass index (BMI) that falls in the normal (or healthy) range [see body mass index]. A healthy body weight may lower the chances of developing health problems such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Heart disease Many different types of heart disease exist. The most common cause of heart disease is narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. This is called coronary artery disease and happens slowly over time. It's the major reason people have heart attacks. Other kinds of heart problems may happen to the valves in the heart, or the heart may not pump well and cause heart failure.

High blood pressure Your blood pressure rises and falls throughout the day. An optimal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg. When blood pressure stays high—greater than or equal to 140/90 mmHg—you have high blood pressure, also called "hypertension." With high blood pressure, the heart works harder, your arteries take a beating, and your chances of a stroke, heart attack, and kidney problems are greater. Uncontrolled high blood pressure may lead to blindness, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney disease, and stroke. Prehypertension is blood pressure between 120 and 139 for the top number, or between 80 and 89 for the bottom number. If your blood pressure is in the prehypertension range, you may be at risk for high blood pressure unless you take action to prevent it.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) (lip-o-PRO-teen) HDL is a compound made up of fat and protein that carries cholesterol in the blood to the liver, where it is broken down and excreted. Commonly called "good" cholesterol, high levels of HDL cholesterol are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Men should aim for an HDL of 40 mg/DL or higher. Women should aim for an HDL of 50 mg/DL or higher.

Hydrogenation (high-dro-jen-AY-shun) A chemical process that turns liquid fats (oils) into solid fats, hydrogenation creates a fat called trans fatty acid (also known as "trans fat"). Trans fats are found in frostings, shortening, some margarines, and some commercial baked foods, like cakes, cookies, muffins, and pastries. Eating trans fats may raise heart disease risk. Federal dietary guidelines [see Resources, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010] recommend keeping trans fat intakes as low as possible.

Hypertension See high blood pressure.

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Insulin (IN-sah-lin) A hormone made by the pancreas [see definition], insulin helps move glucose (sugar) from the blood to muscles and other tissues. Insulin controls blood sugar levels.

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Lactose intolerance A person with this digestive condition has difficulty digesting foods that have lactose, the sugar found in milk and foods made with milk. If you have lactose intolerance, you may feel sick to your stomach after eating these foods. You may also have gas, diarrhea, and/or swelling in your stomach. Eating less food with lactose or using pills or drops to help you digest lactose usually helps. Aged and hard cheeses, fermented milk products (like yogurt), and lactose-free milk and milk products may be easier to digest. You may need to take a calcium supplement if you avoid milk and foods made with milk because they are the most common source of calcium for most people.

LDL See low-density lipoprotein.

Lipoprotein (lip-o-PRO-teen) A compound made up of fat and protein that carries fats and fat-like substances, such as cholesterol, in the blood. [See also high-density lipoprotein and low-density lipoprotein.]

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) (lip-o-PRO-teen) LDL is a compound made up of fat and protein that carries cholesterol in the blood from the liver to other parts of the body. High levels of LDL cholesterol, commonly called "bad" cholesterol, cause a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. An LDL level of less than 100 mg/dL is considered optimal, 100 to 129 mg/dL is considered near or above optimal, 130 to 159 mg/dL is considered borderline high, 160 to 189 mg/dL is considered high, and 190 mg/dL or greater is considered very high.

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Weight-control Information Network

1 WIN Way
Bethesda, MD 20892–3665
Phone: (202) 828–1025
Toll-free number: 1–877–946–4627
Fax: (202) 828–1028
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The Weight-control Information Network (WIN) is a national information service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). WIN provides the general public, health professionals, and the media with up-to-date, culturally relevant materials and tips. Topics include healthy eating, barriers to physical activity, portion control, and eating and physical activity myths. Publications produced by WIN are reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts. This e-text was also reviewed by Van S. Hubbard, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Division of Nutrition Research Coordination, NIH; Ana Terry, M.S., R.D., National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Susan Z. Yanovski, M.D., Co-Director, Office of Obesity Research, NIDDK.

This e-text is not copyrighted. WIN encourages users of this e-text to copy and share as many copies as desired.

National Institutes of Health

NIH Publication No. 02-4976
January 2002

Updated March 2013

To contact WIN, call toll free 1–877–946–4627; fax: 202–828–1028; email:;
or write Weight-control Information Network, 1 WIN Way, Bethesda, MD 20892–3665.

Last Modified: May 28, 2013

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