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.
You don't have to hunt and skin your supper, but if your chicken has been molded into a nugget, who knows what you're really chewing. And when you choose meat that's been processed into sausage, strips or slices, you're downing sodium and preservatives instead of healthy nutrients, says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington at Seattle. Stick to unfussed-with cuts straight from the butcher.
Nutritional supplements may be designed to provide specialized support for athletes. Some of these consist of high-protein products, such as amino acid supplements, while other products contain nutrients that support metabolism, energy, and athletic performance and recovery. People engaging in intense athletic activity may have increased needs for water-soluble vitamins, antioxidants, and certain minerals, including chromium. Sports drinks contain blends of electrolytes (salts) that the body loses during exertion and sweating, as well as vitamins, minerals, and performance-supporting herbs.
Sodium. Sodium is found in salt, but most of the sodium we eat does not come from salt that we add while cooking or at the table. Most of our sodium comes from breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, hot dogs, cheese, pasta dishes, and condiments (like ketchup and mustard). Limit your daily sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (equal to a teaspoon), unless your doctor says something else. Check the Nutrition Facts label for sodium. Foods with 20% or more of the “Daily Value” of sodium are high in sodium.
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.
Having a treat now and then is a great way to make sure your healthy eating plan stays on track. Now, you might be thinking, how can eating a piece of cake or a donut help my eating habits? By not making anything completely off limits, registered dietitians explain that you're less likely to wind up feeling deprived—which means you're also less likely to find yourself in a binge-eating episode.
The Natural Nutritional Foods Association estimated that in 2003 nutritional supplements amounted to a $19.8 billion market in the United States. By category, vitamins provided $6.6 billion in sales, herbs $4.2 billion, meal supplements $2.5 billion, sports nutrition products $2.0 billion, minerals $1.8 billion, and specialty and other products totaling $2.7 billion. The nutritional supplement industry provides a huge array of products for consumer needs.
Vitamin A can become toxic when taken in large amounts (over 100,000 International Units) on a daily basis over time, as can vitamin D. Substituting beta-carotene for vitamin A can alleviate this risk. Very large doses of minerals taken over long periods may have toxic effects in the body. Dosages far exceeding RDA's of vitamins are not recommended, nor are large doses of other supplements.
Trans fat: Some trans fat is naturally in fatty meat and dairy products. Artificial trans fats have been widely used in packaged baked goods and microwave popcorn. They're bad for heart health, so avoid them as much as possible. Look on the nutrition facts label to see how much trans fat is in an item. Know that something that says "0 g trans fat" may actually have up to half a gram of trans fat in it. So also check the ingredients list: If it mentions "partially hydrogenated" oils, those are trans fats.
Access to correct information about food and essential nutrients, including knowledge about the importance of food for health is a fundamental human right. Such information should not only provide a summary of the nutrient content of food, but in our opinion should also explain how dietary supplements can counteract deficiencies and prevent and reverse disease caused by nutrient deficiencies. We should be free to purchase quality-controlled supplements of essential nutrients and to use them to counteract aging and damage from stress as part of a long-term health plan. The right to reject recommendations by doctors for symptomatic treatment with synthetic, some times life-threatening, drugs to alleviate symptoms should be included. [48,49]
Calcium may even be harmful for men, at least in large amounts. The worry is prostate cancer, and two Harvard studies have raised the alarm. In 1998, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study found that a high consumption of calcium from food or supplements was linked to an increased risk of advanced prostate cancer. The risk was greatest in men who got more than 2,000 mg a day. More recently, the U.S. Physicians' Health Study reported that a high consumption of calcium from dairy products appeared to increase a man's risk of prostate cancer by up to 37%. A study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle also found a link between calcium and advanced prostate cancer.
Protein-containing supplements, either ready-to-drink or as powders to be mixed into water, are marketed as aids to people recovering from illness or injury, those hoping to thwart the sarcopenia of old age, to athletes who believe that strenuous physical activity increases protein requirements, to people hoping to lose weight while minimizing muscle loss, i.e., conducting a protein-sparing modified fast, and to people who want to increase muscle size for performance and appearance. Whey protein is a popular ingredient, but products may also incorporate casein, soy, pea, hemp or rice protein.
Studies link high sodium intake to higher blood pressure, and evidence suggests that many people at risk for high blood pressure can reduce their risk by consuming less salt or sodium, as well as following a healthy diet. Most Americans consume more sodium than they need. The recommended amount is less than 2,300 mg per day for children and adults to age 50. The limit drops to 1,500 mg per day for those 51 and older or those of any age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease. You get 2,300 mg in just one teaspoon of salt. One good way to reduce your sodium intake is to eat fewer prepared and packaged foods.
Cholesterol. Cholesterol is found in foods made from animals, such as bacon, whole milk, cheese made from whole milk, ice cream, full-fat frozen yogurt, and eggs. Fruits and vegetables do not contain cholesterol. Eggs are a major source of dietary cholesterol for Americans, but studies show that eating one egg a day does not increase the risk for heart disease in healthy people.2 You should eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Check the Nutrition Facts label for cholesterol. Foods with 20% or more of the “Daily Value” of cholesterol are high in cholesterol.
Folate or vitamin B9 (also known as folic acid when used in fortified foods or taken as a supplement) is another nutrient that many women don’t get enough of in their diets. Folate can greatly reduce the chance of neurological birth defects when taken before conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Folate can also lower a woman’s risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, so even if you’re not planning on getting pregnant (and many pregnancies are unplanned), it’s an essential nutrient for every woman of childbearing age. In later life, folate can help your body manufacture estrogen during menopause.
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.
Create an eating style that can improve your health now and in the future by making small changes over time. Consider changes that reflect your personal preferences, culture and traditions. Think of each change as a “win” as you build positive habits and find solutions that reflect your healthy eating style. Each change is a MyWin that can help you build your healthy eating style. Use the tips and links below to find little victories that work for you.
For instance, foods rich in vitamin E and beta-carotene are healthy and can help reduce cancer risk. However, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommend against taking vitamin E or beta-carotene for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. People who smoke or are at risk for lung cancer also should avoid beta-carotene. It can increase their risk of lung cancer.