Anaemia is a major global health problem for women. Women are affected more than men, in which up to 30% of women being found to be anaemic and 42% of pregnant women. Anaemia is linked to a number of adverse health outcomes including a poor pregnancy outcome and impaired cognitive function (decreased concentration and attention). The main cause of anaemia is iron deficiency. In United States women iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) affects 37% of pregnant women, but globally the prevalence is as high as 80%. IDA starts in adolescence, from excess menstrual blood loss, compounded by the increased demand for iron in growth and suboptimal dietary intake. In the adult woman, pregnancy leads to further iron depletion.
Third, of the interventions that were evaluated, many interventions targeted women who were pregnant, lactating, or with young children <5 y of age. We do not refute the important focus on mothers and their children as a group deserving of special attention, given women's increased nutrient needs during pregnancy and lactation and the intergenerational consequences during this period. However, even the interventions that focused on maternal nutrition often only reported on birth and nutrition outcomes of the child, and not those of the mother. In addition, although there were interventions that targeted adolescent girls and women of reproductive age, they were fewer and less well evaluated than interventions that targeted women as mothers. This aligns with findings from other research which illustrated a higher proportion of programs targeting pregnant and lactating women and women with young children (209). We also found major gaps in the targeting of interventions for older women. With growing rates of overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases, in addition to undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, it is essential to think outside of the maternal-focused paradigm to reach women at all life stages.
What is a healthy weight? The answer is different for everyone. But it’s important to know what a healthy weight is for you. Check out our top questions and answers on weight, weight gain, and weight loss. And talk to your doctor or nurse about your weight goals. Women often gain and lose weight differently, so the steps you need to take to lose weight may be different from the steps someone else needs to take.
Nutrition interventions that target mothers alone inadequately address women's needs across their lives: during adolescence, preconception, and in later years of life. They also fail to capture nulliparous women. The extent to which nutrition interventions effectively reach women throughout the life course is not well documented. In this comprehensive narrative review, we summarized the impact and delivery platforms of nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions targeting adolescent girls, women of reproductive age (nonpregnant, nonlactating), pregnant and lactating women, women with young children <5 y, and older women, with a focus on nutrition interventions delivered in low- and middle-income countries. We found that although there were many effective interventions that targeted women's nutrition, they largely targeted women who were pregnant and lactating or with young children. There were major gaps in the targeting of interventions to older women. For the delivery platforms, community-based settings, compared with facility-based settings, more equitably reached women across the life course, including adolescents, women of reproductive age, and older women. Nutrition-sensitive approaches were more often delivered in community-based settings; however, the evidence of their impact on women's nutritional outcomes was less clear. We also found major research and programming gaps relative to targeting overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable disease. We conclude that focused efforts on women during pregnancy and in the first couple of years postpartum fail to address the interrelation and compounding nature of nutritional disadvantages that are perpetuated across many women's lives. In order for policies and interventions to more effectively address inequities faced by women, and not only women as mothers, it is essential that they reflect on how, when, and where to engage with women across the life course.
Trimming some fat may eliminate some guilt, but be warned: Buying foods labeled “low-fat,” “non-fat,” or “fat-free” may encourage you to eat up to 50 percent more calories, according to three studies by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. Fat’s not the issue when it comes your weight since most of these foods only have about 15 percent fewer calories than their regular counterparts. Go for the full-fat version and eat less—you probably will naturally since they taste better.
Energy and protein supplementation was most often associated with weight gain of women, and often targeted pregnant women with suboptimal weight. For pregnant women, energy and protein supplementation modestly increased maternal weight (86–90). Other maternal outcomes were not frequently reported, and were often secondary objectives of protein-energy supplementation interventions (33, 88). Many studies reported on infant health outcomes, including reductions in low birth weight and preterm births (19, 89–91). Adequate energy and protein intake was also relevant for interventions targeting the prevention of excessive gestational weight gain of overweight and obese pregnant women. These interventions restricted dietary energy intake of overweight women during pregnancy and resulted in reduced excess weight gain during pregnancy but had no impact on pregnancy-related hypertension and pre-eclampsia (19, 88).
Food fortification is one of the most cost-effective strategies to improve micronutrient status through a variety of food vehicles, including staples, condiments, and processed foods (63, 64). Common fortifiable micronutrients include iron, folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and iodine, although B vitamins and vitamin C are also used as fortificants (33, 64). Food fortification reduced anemia and iron deficiency anemia, and improved vitamin A, folate, niacin, thiamin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, zinc, and iodine status of women of reproductive age and adolescents (13, 46, 61, 63–74). Vitamin D and calcium fortification were found to reduce the risk of osteoporosis among older women, especially for those exposed to inadequate sunlight (63, 64). Biofortification efforts, including those that involved breeding or genetic modification of plants to improve micronutrient content, have also shown improvements in the vitamin A and iron status of women (64, 75). Similar to micronutrient supplementation, women and girls with low micronutrient status were most likely to benefit.
Beans are another nutrient powerhouse, providing you with a reliable protein alternative to meat as well as the fiber needed for good digestion and prevention of chronic diseases. Beans — including navy, kidney, black, white, lima, and pinto — are part of the legume family that also includes split peas, lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans. Many are good sources of calcium, important to prevent osteoporosis, especially after menopause. If you’re new to beans, add them gradually to minimize gas. Count each one-quarter cup of cooked beans as one ounce of protein.
Popular belief says if you really want to make a big change, focus on one new healthy habit at a time. But Stanford University School of Medicine researchers say working on your diet and fitness simultaneously may put the odds of reaching both goals more in your favor. They followed four groups of people: The first zoned in on their diets before adding exercise months later, the second did the opposite, the third focused on both at once, and the last made no changes. Those who doubled up were most likely to work out 150 minutes a week and get up to nine servings of fruits and veggies daily while keeping their calories from saturated fat at 10 percent or less of their total intake.
For healthy bones and teeth, women need to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods every day. Calcium keeps bones strong and helps to reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease in which the bones become weak and break easily. Some calcium-rich foods include low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese, sardines, tofu (if made with calcium sulfate) and calcium-fortified foods including juices and cereals. Adequate amounts of vitamin D also are important, and the need for both calcium and vitamin D increases as women get older. Good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, such as salmon, eggs and fortified foods and beverages, such as some yogurts and juices.
Not surprisingly, many integrated health services were delivered in health clinics and facilities. Many women faced barriers to health facility–based care for nutrition, such as distance, time, quality of care, stocking of supplies, and the capacity and nutrition knowledge of healthcare professionals (105, 119). These barriers need to be taken into consideration to enhance the coverage of integrated health care services. Universal health care mitigated cost barriers to seeking health care, but did not address all of the barriers noted here (105, 109, 114, 120–123).
Women's health is positioned within a wider body of knowledge cited by, amongst others, the World Health Organization, which places importance on gender as a social determinant of health. While women's health is affected by their biology, it is also affected by their social conditions, such as poverty, employment, and family responsibilities, and these aspects should not be overshadowed.
WASH interventions were typically community-based. WASH interventions were delivered to households and communities through community mobilization, mass media, home visits, and infrastructural development (126, 130, 136–138). There were some examples of facility-based delivery of WASH interventions, such as in health clinics and schools (139, 140); however, this was not representative of the majority of delivery platform coverage. Health clinic delivery platforms had limited reach, often targeting pregnant women and women with young children. In an evaluation of WASH interventions delivered in India (141), more demanding behavioral practices, such as handwashing and consistent use of latrines, required more intense contact (e.g., multiple home visits) than less intense interventions, such as sweeping of courtyards, that could be effectively delivered in small group meetings such as those in health clinics and community centers. More research is needed to evaluate the benefits and barriers of different delivery platforms for women across the life course.
Oaks BM, Young RR, Adu-Afarwuah S, Ashorn U, Jackson KH, Lartey A, Maleta K, Okronipa H, Sadalaki J, Baldiviez LM et al. Effects of a lipid-based nutrient supplement during pregnancy and lactation on maternal plasma fatty acid status and lipid profile: results of two randomized controlled trials. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2017;117:28–35.
However, many fortification programs in low- and middle-income countries are regional or voluntary and, thus, might have a limited nutritional impact at the national level (76). Although many efficacy trials show benefits of fortification interventions, scaling up fortification is limited by inadequate coverage and resources (13, 77, 78). Evidence for impact is also affected by suboptimal programming, low-bioavailability fortificants (e.g., reduced iron powder), poor consumption rates, weak enforcement mechanisms, and inadequate monitoring (76, 79, 80). More research is needed to evaluate the long-term impact of fortification and biofortification programs (75). In addition, there is also growing concern about fortifying and promoting food vehicles that have adverse health consequences when consumed in excess, such as salt and sugar, given the rising prevalence of overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable disease (81–83).
Nutrition education interventions were often implemented in conjunction with other programs, and it was difficult to identify the effects of nutrition education alone. In addition, many studies reported on one-on-one counseling and group education, and it was not possible to differentiate the impact. The effects of nutrition education were often greater when combined with other resource-based interventions, such as micronutrient supplementation (31, 32), home gardening (28), food supplementation (33), and water provision (22). For nutrition education programs targeting mothers, those who were more educated or of higher socioeconomic status more often translated the intervention to nutritional outcomes (33). This suggests that the effectiveness of nutrition education might relate to individuals’ ability to access resources and implement information received.
Our findings identified gaps and limitations in the evaluation, scope, targeting, and delivery platforms of nutrition interventions in low- and middle-income countries. First, the monitoring and evaluation of nutrition programs that reported on women's nutrition outcomes was generally inadequate. Many of the studies we identified included small-scale efficacy trials. Although there were many large-scale programs that targeted women and adolescent girls with nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive approaches, they lacked rigorous evaluation. Whether the evidence about women's outcomes was limited because they are not systematically measured or because they are not well reported is not clear. Negative results are often not published, and many evaluations of nutrition interventions that are conducted by the same groups responsible for implementing them are typically presented positively. This may have also skewed our findings. More intentional research-quality program evaluation, including of large-scale programs, would provide a stronger evidence base. Of the studies identified in this review, many reported on short-term findings such as changes in knowledge, dietary behaviors, and program coverage. They were limited in their ability to report clinical and anthropometric outcomes for women, the duration of those outcomes, and the feasibility of scaling up programs. There is also a need for systematic, long-term evaluations of interventions whose effects on nutrition outcomes are more distal (e.g., nutrition education compared with micronutrient supplementation). The effects of multisectoral interventions are even more complex to measure. However, frameworks exist to evaluate complex interventions (102) and could be utilized to evaluate the impact of interventions across the life course.