While everyone should enjoy a balanced diet, women’s nutritional needs can vary significantly from those of men. The recommendations on women’s health may change regularly, but stick to these core guidelines for long-term success.
- Eat a variety of foods
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grain products
- Use sugar and salt or sodium only in moderation
- If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation
However, certain parts of a healthy diet have special importance for women.
Vitamins and Minerals
There are several vitamins and minerals essential to a healthy diet. However, women need to pay special attention to two minerals, calcium and iron.
Both women and men need enough calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass during their early years of life. Low calcium intake appears to be one important factor in the development of osteoporosis. Women have a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which progressive loss of bone mass occurs with aging, and causes the bones to be more susceptible to fracture. If a woman has a high level of bone mass when her skeleton matures, this may modify her risk of developing osteoporosis.
Therefore women should increase their calcium intake, especially during adolescence and early adulthood. Choose low-fat dairy items like low-fat cheese, yoghurts and skimmed milk to increase your calcium intake. Other good sources of calcium include salmon, vegetables like broccoli, tofu, seeds and nuts.
Women need more iron than men because they lose iron each month during menstruation. Without enough iron, anaemia – iron deficiency – can develop and cause symptoms including fatigue and headaches. After menopause, body iron stores generally rise so women over 50 who suffer from iron deficiency should consult their doctor for other causes.
Good sources of iron include animal products, especially meat, fish and poultry. These contain heme iron, which is well absorbed by the intestine. Non-heme iron – usually found in leafy green vegetables and wholegrain products – is not as well absorbed as heme-iron but a diet that contains Vitamin C can increase the amount of iron absorbed by the body.
Women tend to have higher levels than men of a desirable type of cholesterol called HDLs (high-density lipoproteins) until menopause. However, it’s still important for women to have a limited intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Cholesterol is found in food from animal sources, especially egg yolks, dairy products, meat, poultry and shellfish.
Diets that are high in fat have been linked to particular cancers, especially breast cancer and colorectal cancer. However, fat should not be eliminated from your diet entirely. Fats provide energy and help in vitamin-absorption, but your intake of fats – especially saturated fat – should be limited. Food with high levels of saturated fat include meats and other animal products, including butter, cream and cheese. Additionally, coconut oil and palm kernel oil is very high in saturated fat. Conversely, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help reduce blood cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated fat is found in plant-based oils, like sunflower, corn and safflower oil, while monounsaturated fats are contained in olive and canola oil.
A rich-fibre diet may be related to lower rates of colon cancer, as it helps move waste from the colon more quickly. Fibre also promotes a full-feeling, meaning that it can help to avoid over-eating. If you’re planning to improve your fibre intake, start slowly so your body has time to adjust. Adding too much fibre too quickly may lead to abdominal discomfort, flatulence and diarrhoea. Fibre-rich foods include vegetables, peas, beans, oats, wholegrain products and fruit.