Trying to balance the demands of family and work or school—and coping with media pressure to look and eat a certain way—can make it difficult for any woman to maintain a healthy diet. But the right food can not only support your mood, boost your energy, and help you maintain a healthy weight, it can also be a huge support through the different stages in a woman’s life. Healthy food can help reduce PMS, boost fertility, make pregnancy and nursing easier, ease symptoms of menopause, and keep your bones strong. Whatever your age or situation, committing to a healthy, nutritious diet will help you look and feel your best and get the most out of life.
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 mcg of folic acid (a B vitamin) daily to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected with spina bifida or other neural-tube defects. Women who are actively trying to get pregnant should consume 600 mcg, and lactating women should consumer 500 mcg. Women of childbearing age should also take care to meet the daily requirements for calcium, fiber, iron, protein and vitamin D. Discuss supplements with a health care professional, however. Iron and vitamin D in particular can be dangerous in high amounts.
Calcium: “Getting enough calcium is important for all ages, but it's particularly important during adolescence and early adulthood, when bones are absorbing calcium,” says Heather Schwartz, MS, RD, a medical nutrition therapist at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. Calcium and vitamin D are often paired in fortified foods such as milk. The reason: The body needs D in order to absorb calcium.
Protein should provide about 15% of a healthy person's daily calories. As a rule of thumb, people of both sexes and any size will do fine with about 60 grams of protein a day. Athletes who have large muscles and work out hard may need 20% more. But even that's not very much; 8 ounces of chicken or 6 ounces of canned tuna, for example, will fit the bill.
Women, as we age, are also more susceptible to the breakdown of our bones, which may result in osteoporosis over time. Genetically, women have a particularly high risk of osteoporosis compared to men, so it’s recommended that women monitor their calcium intake to be sure they’re getting enough. Weight training is another great way (and my favorite!) to build bone density, which is another great reason you should hit the weights!
Don’t fear the fats! Healthy fats provide the structural component to many cell membranes which are essential for cellular development and carrying various messages (hormones) through our body quickly. Protein is also responsible for hormone production, so it’s important for women to get foods that will provide you with healthy fats and protein. Women’s cycles can also deplete your body of B vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium so you should be aware of your whole food intake and possibly choose to supplement (see above for more if it’s right for you).
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared last week National Women’s Health Week (May 14-20th), but in reality we should be taking care of ourselves and have this awareness all year round, right? To kick this month off inspired by women’s health, let’s talk about health, nutrition, and of course answer your questions from Instagram, Twitter, and email from over this year!
Forman, David; de Martel, Catherine; Lacey, Charles J.; Soerjomataram, Isabelle; Lortet-Tieulent, Joannie; Bruni, Laia; Vignat, Jerome; Ferlay, Jacques; Bray, Freddie; Plummer, Martyn; Franceschi, Silvia (November 2012). "Global Burden of Human Papillomavirus and Related Diseases". Vaccine. 30: F12–F23. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2012.07.055. PMID 23199955.
Actually, more people suffer from food intolerances, which don't involve the immune system. However, food intolerance symptoms—such as intestinal distress—may mimic those of a food allergy. If you have a food intolerance, talk to a nutritionist about diagnosis and treatment; if you have food allergies, you need to see an allergist. Whether you have food allergies or intolerance, you will need to develop a diet that fits your needs and avoids foods that trigger a reaction.
Weighing yourself too often can cause you to obsess over every pound. Penner recommends stepping on the scale or putting on a pair of well-fitting (i.e. not a size too small) pants once a week. “Both can be used as an early warning system for preventing weight gain, and the pants may be a better way to gauge if those workouts are helping you tone up and slim down.” [Tweet this tip!]
Women's Fitness of Boston is conveniently located, fairly priced and a delight to be a member of. The owner, Julie, works so hard to make sure that her clients enjoy the gym. She is also a great personal trainer, and is willing to work closely with clients to push them to their potential. She's just that right balance of energetic and serious, making sure that her clients get what they need.
Integrated health care, which integrates curative and preventive interventions, can improve nutrition outcomes for women across the life course through improved access to counseling, vaccinations, and screening and treatment of illnesses (103–107). Access to primary health care positively contributed to the prevention, diagnosis, and management of both communicable and noncommunicable disease (108). Distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets, condoms, screening and testing for disease, and delivery of medical treatments were often associated with integrated health initiatives and improved health and nutrition outcomes (13, 109). Access to health care was associated with the delivery of nutrition-specific interventions to manage pregnancy-induced hypertension, diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and hemorrhage (106, 107, 110). However, some studies showed that integrated services increased knowledge, but did not result in changes in health or nutrition outcomes (103). In addition, in many settings, quality of care was inadequate (107) and incorrect diagnoses and treatments were common (111).
Evaluations of protein-energy supplementation were limited to specific situations and contexts, and few studies evaluated national-scale programs (14, 33). National-level protein-energy supplementation programs for women and adolescent girls are expensive and challenging to implement compared with other efficacious interventions (33). Procuring, preparing, and distributing food and appropriately targeting women most in need (e.g., women below the poverty line, women who have or are at high risk of malnutrition, etc.) present challenges to protein-energy supplementation interventions (33).
Family planning and birth spacing can influence the nutrition of adolescent girls, women of reproductive age, and women with young children by reducing the number of adverse outcomes associated with pregnancy and abortion. For adolescent girls, in particular, pregnancy is associated with increased risk of birth complications, anemia, hindered linear growth, and loss of educational attainment (8, 107). Delaying early child marriages and providing access to family planning, particularly for young wives, allow girls to achieve their maximum growth potential (8, 142). However, for women with young children, there was scarce evidence from observational studies to suggest that greater birth spacing had any impact on anthropometric status (BMI, weight), micronutrient status (anemia, as well as serum zinc, copper, magnesium, and folate), and maternal mortality outcomes (13, 107, 143–147). Findings were mixed, which was attributed to sample size and other confounding factors such as maternal age, breastfeeding status, and supplementation status (146, 147). The strongest evidence of the impact of birth spacing on women's nutrition was related to increased risk of preterm delivery and maternal anemia in interpregnancy intervals <6 mo (14, 146, 147) and increased risk of pre-eclampsia in intervals >5 y (107).
Before and during pregnancy. You need more of certain nutrients than usual to support your health and your baby’s development. These nutrients include protein, calcium, iron, and folic acid. Many doctors recommend prenatal vitamins or a folic acid supplement during this time. Many health insurance plans also cover folic acid supplements prescribed by your doctor during pregnancy. You also need to avoid some foods, such as certain kinds of fish. Learn more about healthy eating during pregnancy in our Pregnancy section.
Social protection interventions are intended to support vulnerable households by providing them with in-kind (e.g., food) or cash transfers. The impact of social protection on women's nutrition was nuanced, as such interventions were associated with protecting against adverse nutrition outcomes, but were also associated with excess weight gain in some settings. In-kind transfers, including food baskets, fortified foods, and school lunches, improved women's and adolescent girls’ energy and micronutrient intakes, as described in the preceding sections. Both CCTs and unconditional cash transfers were common around the world and were associated with improvements in health care utilization and increased food expenditures (5, 14, 195, 196). CCTs were dependent on “conditions” such as school attendance and health care utilization. For children in Burkina Faso, CCTs were associated with greater numbers of preventative health visits compared with unconditional cash transfers (197), and this could be relevant to adult women's health care utilization as well. Unconditional cash transfers, such as old-age pensions, were also common, including in low- and middle-income countries (5, 198). Older women who received pensions had fewer missed meals (199), although evidence was mixed (200). In South Africa, granddaughters who cohabitated with women who received pensions had improved anthropometric measures and fewer missed meals, indicating spillover effects of pension transfers (199, 201).
In addition to diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors can also play an important role in bone health. Smoking and drinking too much alcohol can increase your chances of developing osteoporosis, while weight-bearing exercise (such as walking, dancing, yoga, or lifting weights) can lower your risk. Strength or resistance training—using machines, free weights, elastic bands, or your own body weight—can be especially effective in helping to prevent loss of bone mass as you age.