In our previous article, General Guidelines for Better Nutrition, we discussed general tips and guidelines for healthier eating as a whole. For this article, we are combining our March spotlight – “Healthy Eating” – with Women’s History Month, to delve into specific tips and advice for nutrition and healthier eating for women.
Generally, the same basic nutritional guidelines apply to both men and women. Healthy eating means eating more vegetables and fruits, eating lean proteins, eating whole grains instead of processed starches, eating low-fat dairy products, and eating healthy fats (e.g., olive oil or fish oil). Healthy eating means reducing, managing, or eliminating your intake of added sugars, trans fats, and sodium.
Women, though, do have some unique and differing nutritional needs compared to men, such as vitamin and mineral needs or caloric intake. Women have different nutritional needs at different stages of life, and pregnant women, nursing women, and post-menopausal women also have specific dietary needs.
Although women generally require fewer daily calories than men, certain vitamin and mineral requirements are much higher. Hormonal changes associated with menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause mean that women are at higher risk of anemia, weakened bones, and osteoporosis; this means that women need a higher intake of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin B9 (aka, folate or folic acid).
Important Vitamins and Minerals for Women’s Health
- Calcium: Necessary for healthy bones and teeth, regulation of the heart, and functionality of the nervous system. Low levels of calcium can lead to irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. Your body may take calcium from your bones to make up for a cellular deficiency, leading to weakened bones or osteoporosis – a condition that women are at greater risk of than men.
- Magnesium: Enables the utilization of calcium by facilitating calcium absorption from the blood into the bones.
- Vitamin D: Facilitates the body’s metabolism of calcium.
- Iron: Used to create hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood. Iron is also important in the maintenance of healthy skin, hair, and nails. Women of childbearing age need twice the amount of iron that men do due to blood lost from menstruation, and even more iron than that during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Iron deficiency anemia can leave you feeling weak and exhausted after even small levels of physical activity, and can also affect your mood, causing irritability and difficulty concentrating.
- Folate: Also known as Vitamin B9 or folic acid, folate greatly reduces the chance of neurological birth defects when taken before conception and during the early weeks of pregnancy. Folate also lowers women’s risk for heart disease and certain cancers. In later life, folate can help in the production of estrogen during menopause. Low folate levels can also lead to irritability, fatigue, depression, and headaches.
Hydration for Women
At Multipure, we ascribe to the same general rule for hydration to women as we do for men – the numeric value of half your body weight in pounds, as ounces of water to drink. For example, a woman weighing 130 pounds should drink 65 ounces of water daily, equal to roughly eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day. In addition to this, mothers who are nursing need to increase this intake due to lactation and breastfeeding; a general rule is to drink one glass of water each time you nurse and with each meal, in addition to the regular recommended glasses of water.
A Balanced Diet for Women
Healthy eating for women should fulfill all the necessary vitamin and mineral needs, while also maintaining a balance of different types of foods to provide energy without risking ill-effects from less-healthy substances.
A healthy woman’s meal plan should therefore include the following amounts of foods:
- 3 oz or more of whole grains: whole-grain bread, whole-wheat cereal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, etc.)
- 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.
- 5 oz or more of proteins: lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, etc.
- 5 cups or more of fruit: fresh, frozen, canned, or dried – without added sugar
- 2 cups or more of vegetables: fresh, frozen, or canned – without added salt
Foods that are rich in iron are especially important for women – even more during pregnancy. Foods with a high iron content include red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, kale, spinach, beans, lentils, and some fortified cereals. Plant-based iron-content foods should be eaten with foods high in vitamin C, as the vitamin C helps the body more easily absorb the iron from plants. Foods that combine these two include spinach salad with orange slices or lentil soup with tomatoes.
Foods that are high in folate are important for women of childbearing age to decrease the risk of birth defects. These foods include oranges, leafy green vegetables, beans, and peas. Women who are pregnant or who are trying to conceive will often be directed to take folic acid supplements in addition to this.
Healthy Eating to Alleviate Symptoms of PMS
The food women eat can offer some relief for the bloating, cramping, and fatigue caused by fluctuating hormones before their periods.
- Eat food high in iron and zinc: red meat, liver, eggs, leafy green vegetables, or dried fruit.
- Eat food high in calcium: milk, yogurt, or cheese.
- Eat food with essential fatty acids: fish or flaxseed.
- Avoid trans fats, deep fried foods, and sugar.
- Avoid salt.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
Healthy Eating During Pregnancy or Breastfeeding
While only 300 extra calories per day are needed for sufficient nutrition for a growing baby, certain foods are beneficial during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: essential for the neurological and visual development for babies, and contribute to the production of breast milk after birth. Cold water fish and seaweed are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and include salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, or anchovies.
- Eat high quality protein to aid the development of the brain and nervous system in babies: fish, poultry, dairy, and plant-based proteins may be healthier options compared to red meat.
- Avoid foods that may be harmful during pregnancy: soft cheeses, deli meats, raw sprouts, and raw fish.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
Healthy Eating to Alleviate Symptoms of Menopause
For several years leading up to menopause, the production of hormones dramatically changes in women’s bodies. Eating the appropriate foods can ease some of the symptoms of these hormone changes.
- Increase calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium intake to support bone health and prevent osteoporosis.
- Eat more good fats: omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids boost hormone production, and gamma-linolenic acid can help balance hormones.
- Eat flaxseed to stabilize hormone levels and manage hot flashes.
- Eat more soy: soy products are high in phytoestrogens – plant-based estrogen that may help with menopausal symptoms. Healthy soy foods include soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and soy nuts.
A List of Healthy Foods to Eat for Women
The following is a list of some of the healthier foods in general that women should eat. A more complete list can be found here.
Foods for Your Heart
- Salmon, mackerel, or herring – high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Garlic – lowers high blood pressure and reduces arterial plaque buildup.
- Olive oil – lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) and increases HDL (good cholesterol).
Foods for Your Brain
- Shrimp – high in choline, necessary for the production and maintenance of neurotransmitters; can also lower the risk of breast cancer.
- Blueberries – high in antioxidants, they can contribute to mental sharpness and skin health.
- Almond butter – high in vitamin E, which can reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.
Foods to Protect Against Cancer
- Turmeric – an anti-inflammatory that can help prevent breast cancer.
- Tomatoes – high in the antioxidant lycopene, it can help protect against breast, endometrial, lung, stomach, prostate, and renal cell carcinoma cancers.
- Green tea – high in polyphenols, an antioxidant that can lower the risk of breast cancer.
Foods for Your Immune System and Mood
- Portabella mushrooms – high in potassium, they can lower blood pressure, increase immunity, and aid in concentration.
- Brazil nuts – high in selenium, which can protect the thyroid gland.
- Beets – an anti-inflammatory that can boost metabolism and increase serotonin production, putting you in a good mood.
Foods for Fertility
- Greek yogurt – high in probiotics, which contribute to urinary and vaginal health.
- Cranberry juice – can help prevent urinary tract infections.
- Oysters – high in zinc, which can increase libido.
Foods for Mothers and Babies
- Spinach – high in prebiotics, protecting the gut bacteria of both mother and child.
- Broccoli – high in vitamin C, crucial for the production of collagen.
- Ginger – effective at treating and preventing nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.
Foods to Help with Menopause
- Guacamole – rich in magnesium and tryptophan, helping prevent insomnia.
- Bananas – high in potassium and low in sodium, protecting against heart attack and stroke.
- Kale – high in vitamin K, protecting against osteoporosis.
Overall, healthy eating for women comes down to some of the same general guidelines, with some emphasis on specific vitamins and minerals that specifically address women’s health. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole-grains, and some dairy, while cutting down on unhealthy fats, fried foods, and sugary foods. Make sure to eat foods rich in calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, iron, and folate, and pay attention to foods that help with menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. And, of course, drink plenty of clean and healthy water.
- “Healthy Eating and Diet Tips for Women.” Helpguide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/diet-and-nutrition-tips-for-women.htm (accessed March 9, 2021).
- Ellis, Esther. “Healthy Eating for Women.” Eatright.org. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/healthy-eating-for-women (accessed March 9, 2021).
- Ratini, Melinda. “Vitamins Women Need.” Webmd.com. https://www.webmd.com/women/guide/essential-vitamins-for-women-at-every-age (accessed March 9, 2021).
- Broudy, Berne. “What Every Woman Needs to Know About Hydration.” Womenshealthmag.com. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/a19966925/hydration-tips-0/ (accessed March 9, 2021).
- Torrens, Kerry. “A Balanced Diet for Women.” Bbcgoodfood.com. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/balanced-diet-women (accessed March 9, 2021).
- Tarantino, Olivia. “50 Best Foods for Women.” Eatthis.com. https://www.eatthis.com/healthy-foods-for-women/ (accessed March 9, 2021).