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Food and Health Vocabulary

with word definitions, example sentences and quiz


The food we eat can affect our health in many ways. If we eat food that's contaminated with bacteria, we'll be sick and go to the toilet more often. We can also get sick if we eat dangerous foods like poisonous mushrooms or certain kinds of fish. These foods have short-term effects on our health, but food can also have long-term effects on our health.

These long-term effects vary depending on where we live and how much we eat. In a country with food shortages due to war or lack of rain, people might suffer from malnutrition. People with malnutrition lose a lot of weight and become very thin and weak. They can also develop long-term illnesses due to the lack of essential nutrients like vitamin C and iron. People in rich, developed countries can also develop food-related illnesses, but they're usually related to eating too much, or overeating, rather than eating too little.

The term malnutrition is made from the combining form mal- (bad) + the noun nutrition (food, nourishment, eating). It therefore means "bad eating", and covers "wrong" eating, under-eating and over-eating. Other words formed with mal- include: malpractice, malfunction, malodorous

Overweight and obesity

obese child

People who overeat can become overweight, especially if they don't exercise. Being a little overweight isn't usually related to serious health problems, but putting on more weight and becoming obese definitely is. This is because obesity is a major risk factor for many serious illnesses that can be fatal and shorten our lives by many years.

People who are suffering from malnutrition can usually recover by simply eating nutritious food, but people who are obese face a far more difficult situation. To recover they must lose a lot of weight by eating less and changing to a healthy diet¹. This can be very difficult to do, especially if they live in a place full of Western-style fast foods and processed foods. And even if they lose weight by going on a diet², most people soon return to their usual diet and put the weight back on. So learning about food and health and how to prevent obesity in the first place is one of the most important things we can learn.

All the energy our bodies need comes from the food we eat, and it's measured in calories. If we balance the calories we get from food with the number we "burn" each day as energy, our body weight stays the same. But if we eat more food than we need, the extra energy is stored as body fat and we put on weight. You can check to see if your body weight is healthy or not by measuring your height and weight and then calculating your body mass index (or BMI) with a special formula. If your BMI is between 18.5 and 25, your weight is healthy. If it's between 25 and 30, you're overweight, and if it's over 30, you're obese and need to change your diet.

The obesity epidemic

bese couple walking in a park in Paris

Before the 1970s obesity wasn't a serious problem, but in the mid-70s obesity rates began rising in Western countries like the USA, UK and Australia. These were the first countries in which major food companies began increasing their profits by selling more snack foods, fast foods and processed junk food than ever before. Fast food companies opened hamburger, pizza and fried chicken outlets in every big town and city and spent huge amounts of money marketing them. Major food companies filled supermarkets with frozen "TV dinners" and convinced families they were as healthy as home-cooked meals. They marketed more and more sweets, snack foods and sugary drinks to children even though they knew they were damaging their health and ruining their teeth. They spent millions of dollars lobbying governments in order to stop them from regulating their industry and reducing their profits.

In the 1990s Western food companies began targeting people in developing countries as well, and many are now eating hamburgers, pizzas and other Western foods instead of traditional local foods. As a result, obesity rates have increased greatly in those countries as well. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 1% of the world's children were obese in 1975, but the number is now 10 times higher. The number of overweight and obese adults has also increased greatly since 1975 and is now over 2 billion people. The situation has become so serious that it's being called an obesity epidemic.

An epidemic usually involves just one disease, but the obesity epidemic is related to several diseases. It's a major risk factor for heart disease and heart attacks, high blood pressure and strokes, diabetes and kidney disease, and many kinds of cancer, all of which can be fatal. And our risk of developing one of these diseases increases every time we eat certain dangerous or fattening foods.

Dangerous foods

hamburger and French fries

Most nutritionists now agree that a diet of Western-style processed food and fast food is one of the unhealthiest diets of all. This is because it's so high in saturated fats, trans fats, sugar and salt, all of which can be a danger to health.

Saturated fats and trans fats

Saturated fats and trans fats are dangerous because they increase our blood levels of cholesterol, a substance that can form fatty lumps that block blood flow and cause heart attacks and stroke. The worst foods for saturated fats include bacon, sausages, hamburgers, fatty steaks, ham and salami pizzas, high-fat cream, etc.

Trans fats are even more dangerous and harder to avoid because food companies use them so often. They can be found in potato crisps, donuts, pastries, cookies and other processed foods as well as in margarine and oils used to make French fries, onion rings and other deep-fried foods. They're banned in New York City and certain other places, but still used elsewhere even though the WHO has said they cause over half a million deaths every year. (Source: WHO News Release, 14 May 2018)

Featured Reading: Trans Fats
(with vocabulary list and quiz questions)
Trans fats make cookies, donuts, French fries and many other foods taste better and last longer, but the World Health Organization (WHO) says they cause over 500,000 deaths EVERY YEAR!! To find out more, check out our Featured Reading!


Sugar is a natural carbohydrate found in fruits and vegetables, but it's also added to thousands of products to make them taste sweeter. It's added to soft drinks and energy drinks, flavoured yoghurt, cereals, cookies, cakes, sweets and candy, and most other processed foods. Too much sugar can cause obesity and diabetes as well as heart disease. Just one soft drink or energy drink contains nearly half the sugar we should consume in one day, so anyone on a diet of Western-style processed foods is sure to consume too much. In 2014 Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at Harvard University, wrote, "The effects of added sugar intake — higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease — are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke."


We all need a little salt in our diets, but consuming more than 5 or 6 grams per day can lead to high blood pressure which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney disease. A high-salt diet is also a probable risk factor for stomach cancer. Salt is added to so many products (often listed as sodium or sodium chloride on the packet) that it's become yet another reason to avoid processed foods.

Healthy diets and foods

To learn more about food and health, nutritionists have studied diets in places where people are healthier and live longer than usual. They've found that in Japan and Mediterranean countries in southern Europe, rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer are among the lowest in the world. Even though their traditional cuisines look and taste very different, Japanese and Mediterranean people eat many of the same foods. They eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, and they cook in vegetable oils rather than animal fats. Their traditional diets also include plenty of fish and seafood, but not many dairy foods or eggs, and little or no red meat.

Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean and Japanese diets are similar and both are linked to low rates of diet-related illness like heart disease. Should we use them as a guide to healthy eating? Many experts now think so.

  • fresh vegetables
  • fish and seafood
  • grains (esp. wholewheat bread and pasta)
  • beans, legumes and nuts
  • fresh and dried fruits
  • eggs and dairy foods in moderation
  • olive oil

Many nutritionists now recommend low-fat diets like this, or the similar pescatarian/pescetarian diet that includes dairy products, fish and seafood, but no poultry or red meat like pork or beef. Some are even recommending a totally meat-free vegetarian or vegan diet, especially for people with heart disease or other diet-related illnesses. But if you become vegetarian or vegan, they say you must make sure you get all the essential amino acids from protein-rich plant foods like soybeans.


If we eat healthy foods in a balanced diet, there's a good chance we'll live long and healthy lives. A balanced diet should provide around the same number of calories as the body uses each day. This allows us to maintain a healthy BMI by ensuring we don't lose or gain too much weight. Our diet should include a wide variety of fresh, natural foods with a good balance of nutrients plus all the essential vitamins and minerals. We should try to avoid fatty foods and processed foods that contain substances that can be dangerous like sugar and salt, and additives such as preservatives, colourings and artificial flavourings that might not have been tested for long enough. And we should definitely avoid Western-style fast foods that contain saturated fats and trans fats.

body mass index (or BMI) (noun): a weight-to-height ratio that shows if you're overweight, underweight or at a healthy weight- Jason's body mass index is 27, so he's a bit overweight.

calorie (noun): a unit for measuring the amount of energy we get from food - How many calories are there in a can of soft drink?

carbohydrate (noun): a substance in foods such as bread and potatoes that is a major source of energy or calories - Is limiting carbohydrates a good way to lose weight?

cancer (noun): a serious illness that is usually difficult to cure and often leads to death - My cousin died of lung cancer when he was fifty.

cholesterol (noun): a substance in body cells that can cause heart disease if levels in the blood are too high - The test shows you have too much bad cholesterol in your blood.

consume (verb): to eat or drink something - How many calories should we consume every day?

contaminate (verb): to make something a carrier of disease - Food that isn't stored properly can become contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

diabetes (noun): a serious illness in which your body cannot regulate the amount of sugar in the blood - Being obese is the most common cause of type 2 diabetes.

diet¹ (noun): all the foods a person normally eats - My doctor said a vegetarian diet rich in plant protein is best.

diet² (noun): a limited amount or range of food that someone eats to lose weight or become healthier - I've been on lots of diets but I'm still overweight.

epidemic (noun): the sudden spread of a disease or medical condition - Processed foods are causing a global obesity epidemic.

fast food (noun): food served quickly, esp. Western foods like hamburgers, pizzas, fried chicken and French fries - Fast food joints are everywhere around here.

fatal (adjective): causing someone to die - The heart attack wasn't fatal. He survived!

heart disease (noun): a medical condition in which the heart fails to work properly - Eating healthy food prevents heart disease.

high blood pressure (or hypertension) (noun): a condition in which the blood pressure is higher than it should be - High blood pressure can cause strokes, can't it?

junk food (noun): unhealthy food, esp. fatty fast foods and processed snack foods - Kids eat far too much junk food these days.

lobby (verb): to contact people with power like politicians and try to influence them for your benefit - The food industry spends millions of dollars lobbying politicians.

malnutrition (noun): a condition of weakness or illness caused by eating too much food, not enough food or unhealthy food - There are still many poor people who suffer from malnutrition.

market (verb): to use advertising and other persuasive methods to make people want a product - Shouldn't people who produce and market dangerous foods be punished?

nutrient (noun): a substance in food that is necessary for good health - A healthy diet gives us all the nutrients we need.

nutritious (adjective): (of food or drinks) containing substances we need in order to be healthy - Japanese food is both nutritious and delicious.

obese (adjective): very fat; far above a healthy weight (BMI >30) - Why are so many people in Australia obese these days?

obesity (noun): the state of being very overweight, or the medical condition related to this - If marketing junk food to kids causes obesity, why isn't it banned?

overeat (verb): to eat more food than the body needs - If I didn't overeat, I wouldn't be overweight.

overweight (adjective): above a normal or healthy weight (BMI 25-30) - How can I stop my kids from becoming overweight?

pescatarian/pescetarian (adjective): (of a diet) including vegetarian food and fish, but no other meat - My cousin thinks farming animals and chickens is cruel and bad for the planet, so he's pescetarian.

preservative (noun): a chemical substance used for preventing food from spoiling or wood from decaying - Many processed foods have added preservatives and artificial colourings and flavourings.

process (verb): to add chemicals or other substances to food to make it last longer or look or taste better - The processed food industry makes a huge amount of money.

profit (noun): money made by selling a product or service - Companies will do whatever's necessary to increase their profits.

regulate (verb): to use official powers or laws to control an activity, process or industry - The only way to prevent obesity is to regulate the food industry.

risk factor (noun): something that increases your chances of developing a disease or being injured - Smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer.

saturated fat (noun): a type of fat that's found in butter, cheese, red meat, etc. - Reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet can help you live longer.

stroke (noun): the sudden bursting of a blood vessel in the brain that can cause serious illness or death - After he had a stroke, Harry couldn't walk or talk normally.

trans fat (or trans fatty acid) (noun): an artificial fat that makes food last longer and taste better but is very bad for health - Trans fats are banned in many places because they're so bad for our health.

vegan (adjective): (of a diet) with plant foods only; without animal products, including meat, fish, seafood, eggs, milk, cheese, etc - Let's try sticking to a vegan diet.

vegetarian (adjective): (of a diet) with plant foods and sometimes dairy products, but without meat, fish, or seafood - Most people I met in India were vegetarian.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers.