It's a cliché, to be sure, but a balanced diet is the key to good nutrition and good health. Following that diet, however, isn't always that easy. One challenge is that women often feel too busy to eat healthfully, and it's often easier to pick up fast food than to prepare a healthy meal at home. But fast food is usually high in fat and calories and low in other nutrients, which can seriously affect your health. At the other extreme, a multimillion dollar industry is focused on telling women that being fit means being thin and that dieting is part of good nutrition.
"The front is all advertising," says Michelle K. Berman, R.D., of Fairfax, Virginia. Flip it around for the real story. The more ingredients, the more likely it has visited a few processing plants where something artificial was mixed in, says Lydia Zepeda, Ph.D., professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Plus, checking the label is a great way to find out if there are unnecessary ingredients in something seemingly healthy. Because, no, bread does not need added sugar.
Scientists still have much to learn even about common vitamins. One recent study found unexpected evidence about vitamin E. Earlier research suggested that men who took vitamin E supplements might have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. “But much to our surprise, a large NIH-funded clinical trial of more than 29,000 men found that taking supplements of vitamin E actually raised—not reduced—their risk of this disease,” says Dr. Paul M. Coates, director of NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements. That’s why it’s important to conduct clinical studies of supplements to confirm their effects.
In 2015, the Australian Government's Department of Health published the results of a review of herbal supplements to determine if any were suitable for coverage by health insurance. Establishing guidelines to assess safety and efficacy of botanical supplement products, the European Medicines Agency provided criteria for evaluating and grading the quality of clinical research in preparing monographs about herbal supplements. In the United States, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health provides fact sheets evaluating the safety, potential effectiveness and side effects of many botanical products.
Most Americans get far more protein than they really need. In theory, that may not be wise. Like carbohydrates, protein provides 4 calories per gram, and excess calories from any source will be stored as body fat. Excess dietary protein increases calcium loss in the urine, perhaps raising the risk for osteoporosis ("thin bones," more a worry for women) and kidney stones (a particular worry for men).
Choose whole foods instead of processed. Swap your frozen pizza and instant ramen with whole foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They are packed with essential nutrients like protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals as opposed to processed foods which contain empty calories. “Commit to adding veggies to your lunch and dinner and fruit to your snack,” suggests DiCarlo.
In the past, women have often tried to make up deficits in their diet though the use of vitamins and supplements. However, while supplements can be a useful safeguard against occasional nutrient shortfalls, they can’t compensate for an unbalanced or unhealthy diet. To ensure you get all the nutrients you need from the food you eat, try to aim for a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, quality protein, healthy fats, and low in processed, fried, and sugary foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the neurological and early visual development of your baby and for making breast milk after birth. Aim for two weekly servings of cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, or anchovies. Sardines are widely considered the safest and most sustainable fish to eat, while seaweed is a rich vegetarian source of Omega-3s.
A well-balanced diet, comprised of a variety of foods, adequately meets women’s needs for vitamins, minerals and energy. For good health, women need to pay special attention to calcium, iron and folate (folic acid) intake. A healthy diet also should minimize the intake of fat and sugar. Diets high in saturated or trans fat can promote high levels of blood cholesterol and increase risk for heart disease. A diet that includes high sugar provides empty calories, or calories that do not provide any nutritional value and often times replace more nutritious food selections.
Finding healthier recipes to serve your family is easier than ever, now that five of America’s largest media companies have teamed up with Pinterest and the Partnership for a Healthier America on an effort to make it easier for their millions of online visitors to put nutritious meals on the table every day. Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines, Meredith, Food Network and Time, Inc. have identified thousands of nutritious recipes that that support USDA’s MyPlate, and are labeling, compiling and promoting these recipes on their most popular cooking websites. Check out a Pinterest page for thousands of recipes, a site that provides a one-stop-shop where parents, beginner home cooks and even the most experienced chefs can find and share healthier recipes.
Part of the reason why so many women fail to get the amount of iron they need is because one of the best sources of iron is red meat (especially liver) which also contains high levels of saturated fat. While leafy green vegetables and beans are also good sources of iron—and don’t contain high levels saturated fat—the iron from plant foods is different to the iron from animal sources, and not absorbed as well by the body. Other foods rich in iron include poultry, seafood, dried fruit such as raisins and apricots, and iron-fortified cereals, breads, and pastas.