Women are unique. Our bodies are composed of a specific blend of fat and muscle that is different from a man’s. Our bodies are regulated by female hormones, and we have specific gender-related health concerns that men don’t have to worry about. Therefore, it is reasonable that a woman’s diet should be adapted to address some of these issues.
Eating to protect your bones: Estrogen production drops when women go through menopause. This may cause rapid bone loss, putting women at increased risk for fractures, osteoporosis and loss of strength and function. Vitamin D and calcium work together to strengthen bone, so it is essential to get enough of these nutrients.
Each day, women need 600 IU of vitamin D. Women ages 19-50 also need 1,000 mg calcium; after age 50, that increases to 1,200 mg calcium daily. Foods rich in vitamin D and calcium include fortified dairy products, like low-fat milk, cheeses and yogurts, and fortified plant milks, like soy, rice or nut milks.
Fatty fish, like salmon, and mushrooms are good sources for vitamin D; green leafy vegetables, soy and almonds are additional calcium sources. You also can get vitamin D from about a half an hour of direct exposure to sunlight.
Antioxidants, like those found in green tea, have been shown to help mineralize bones. Vitamin C rich foods, like citrus or tomatoes, can help increase bone mass by protecting bones from free radical damage. Magnesium is also important to help calcium do its job. Good sources of magnesium include leafy green vegetables, broccoli, halibut, and seeds, like pumpkin, sunflower, sesame or flax.
Physical activity is crucial to maintain bone mass. Weight-bearing activities, like walking, jogging or dancing, are especially good for strengthening bones, muscle and improving balance.
Foods that fight breast cancer: One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself from breast cancer is to achieve a healthy weight. Excess body fat increases the risk for several types of cancer, including post-menopausal breast cancer. Limiting your alcohol consumption can reduce your risk of breast cancer. A diet rich in lots of antioxidant plant foods helps provide nutrients needed to suppress cancer development. Breast-feeding your children also will help protect you against breast cancer.
Protect your heart: Heart disease is now the No. 1 killer of women. A heart-healthy diet, along with regular exercise, is key to helping prevent this disease. A diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans that also is low in total fat is crucial for heart health. Fill your plate with at least half fruits and vegetables, choose lean meats and low-fat dairy, and watch your intake of salty foods and sugary treats.
Ease PMS symptoms: Bloating, cramping and fatigue every month because of fluctuating hormones can be eased with some diet changes. Although you may be craving sugary, salty, fatty foods, these will only worsen mood swings and cause more bloating and water retention. Caffeine and alcohol have both been shown to worsen PMS symptoms, so avoid them during this time of the month.
Page 2 of 2 - Special needs during pregnancy and breast-feeding: You don’t really need to eat for two — an extra 300 calories a day is usually enough to meet increased nutritional needs. More than that could lead to excessive weight gain. Eat lean meats, choose healthy fats, cut down on caffeine, take your prenatal vitamins, and avoid all alcohol and nicotine to ensure the best for your baby.
Managing menopause: Weight gain, mood swings and hot flashes — men certainly don’t have to manage these issues! A woman’s calorie needs decline during aging, making weight gain that much easier. Focus on getting plenty of physical activity and eat a high-fiber, low-fat, low-sugar diet to help control your weight. Some studies suggest that including soy foods in your daily diet can help ease hot flashes. Hot flashes also improve when wine, sugar, white flour products and caffeine are reduced or eliminated.
Diet right: Although a high-protein diet might be OK for men, women should avoid eating too much animal-based protein. Eating lots of protein causes calcium loss, something women need plenty of. Eat regular meals, especially breakfast, to help control cravings, mood swings and fatigue. Don’t avoid fat — they are needed in our diet for healthy skin, nails and hair, to absorb vitamins, and to boost brainpower and improve mood. Just be sure to choose your fats wisely. Limit animal fats and trans fats and choose healthy fats found in olives, nuts, fish and seafood, nut butters, avocados and vegetable oils.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.