Trimming some fat may eliminate some guilt, but be warned: Buying foods labeled “low-fat,” “non-fat,” or “fat-free” may encourage you to eat up to 50 percent more calories, according to three studies by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. Fat’s not the issue when it comes your weight since most of these foods only have about 15 percent fewer calories than their regular counterparts. Go for the full-fat version and eat less—you probably will naturally since they taste better.
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.
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.
Calories. Most times, women need fewer calories. That’s because women naturally have less muscle, more body fat, and are usually smaller. On average, adult women need between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day. Women who are more physically active may need more calories. Find out how many calories you need each day, based on your age, height, weight, and activity level.
To achieve these goals, cut down on saturated fat from animal products (meat and the skin of poultry, whole-fat dairy products, and certain vegetable foods — palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and coconut). And it's just as important to reduce your consumption of trans fatty acids, the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in stick margarine, fried foods, and many commercially baked goods and snack 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.
When you do high-intensity interval training (and if you’re not, you should be!), follow a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio, such as sprinting one minute followed by 30 seconds of recovery. [Tweet this secret!] According to several studies, the most recent out of Bowling Green State University, this formula maximizes your workout results. The BGSU researchers also say to trust your body: Participants in the study set their pace for both running and recovery according to how they felt, and by doing so women worked at a higher percentage of their maximum heart rate and maximum oxygen consumption than the men did.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) food pyramid system (www.mypyramid.gov) provides a good start by recommending that the bulk of your diet come from the grain group—this includes bread, cereal, rice and pasta— the vegetable group; and the fruit group. Select smaller amounts of foods from the milk group and the meat and beans group. Eat few—if any—foods that are high in fat and sugars and low in nutrients. The amount of food you should consume depends on your sex, age and level of activity.
Yes, regular weight training will result in increased muscle mass. However, there is a certain type of training necessary to achieve these gains in size, training that involves heavy resistance and volume. By keeping the weight at about 40 to 50% of maximum effort and increasing repetitions for a cardiovascular effect, you will notice tone, not bulk.
To help you learn how to eat healthfully, start with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) dietary guidelines system, which you can find at http://www.mypyramid.gov. The MyPyramid system, which looks somewhat like the familiar food pyramid of old, offers guidance based on individual needs and replaces "serving" recommendations with actual amounts of food. It also emphasizes the importance of balancing nutritious (and tasty!) food choices from all food groups every day with daily physical activity.
Young adults. Teen girls and young women usually need more calories than when they were younger, to support their growing and developing bodies. After about age 25, a woman’s resting metabolism (the number of calories her body needs to sustain itself at rest) goes down. To maintain a healthy weight after age 25, women need to gradually reduce their calories and increase their physical activity.
Among other things, you need calcium to build healthy bones and teeth, keep them strong as you age, regulate the heart’s rhythm, and ensure your nervous system functions properly. Calcium deficiency can lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Women are at a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis, so it’s important to get plenty of calcium, in combination with magnesium and vitamin D, to support your bone health.
Here, too, body size is the main difference between the needs of males and females. Despite all the hype about high-protein diets, our protein requirements are really quite modest — only about a third of a gram per pound of body weight. For a 125-pound woman, that amounts to about 42 grams, for a 175-pound man, 58 grams. That's a tiny difference, just about half an ounce a day.
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.
Before you start a juice cleanse diet, know that drastically restricting your caloric intake to drop pounds may backfire: In a 2010 study, women placed on a 1,200-calorie diet for three weeks had elevated levels of cortisol, our primary stress hormone. [Tweet this fact!] Chronic stress has been associated with an increased risk of weight gain as well as coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and impaired immune functioning.
Oils. When cooking try to use oils from plants instead of solid fats like butter, margarine, or coconut oil. See this list of oils and fats to see how healthy each type of cooking oil and solid fat is. Most women eat too much solid fat through packaged foods like chips or salad dressing, and not enough healthy fats like olive oil or the type of fat in seafood.