A healthy vegetarian diet falls within the guidelines offered by the USDA. However, meat, fish and poultry are major sources of iron, zinc and B vitamins, so pay special attention to these nutrients. Vegans (those who eat only plant-based food) may want to consider vitamin and mineral supplements; make sure you consume sufficient quantities of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium. You can obtain what you need from non-animal sources. For instance:

Animal products, such as meat, fish and poultry are good and important sources of iron. Iron from plant sources are found in peas and beans, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, potatoes, and whole-grain and iron-fortified cereal products. The addition of even relatively small amounts of meat or foods containing vitamin C substantially increases the total amount of iron absorbed from the entire meal.
The new guidelines encourage eating more nutrient-dense food and beverages. Many of us consume too many calories from solid fats, added sugar and refined grains. The guidelines promote a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds.
Iron: Essential for healthy blood cells, iron becomes especially important when girls begin to menstruate. With each period, a woman loses small amounts of iron. “About 10% of American women are iron deficient,” says Dorothy Klimis-Zacas, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Maine and co-editor of Nutritional Concerns of Women (CRC Press, 2003). “About 5% have iron deficiency anemia.” Symptoms of low iron include fatigue, impaired immunity, and poor performance at school or work.
Anemia can deplete your energy, leaving you feeling weak, exhausted, and out of breath after even minimal physical activity. Iron deficiency can also impact your mood, causing depression-like symptoms such as irritability and difficulty concentrating. While a simple blood test can tell your doctor if you have an iron deficiency, if you’re feeling tired and cranky all the time, it’s a good idea to examine the amount of iron in your diet.
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.
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.

The best evidence that ALA can protect the heart comes from the Lyon Diet Heart Study, a randomized clinical trial in Europe. It tested the effects of an ALA-enriched Mediterranean diet in 605 patients with coronary artery disease. Over a four-year period, the high-ALA diet produced a 72% reduction in heart attacks and cardiac deaths and a 56% lower risk of dying from any cause (including cancer). The Mediterranean diet differed from the standard Western diet in many respects, but because it contained a special canola oil margarine, the greatest difference was in its ALA content, which was nearly eight times higher in the protective diet.

Health care experts haven't reached a consensus on the issue of vitamin and mineral supplements. Many say that if you are healthy and eat a well-balanced diet, you don't need any. But not all of us eat a well-balanced diet. And sometimes, you may follow a nutritious diet and still be deficient. Many women fail to get the adequate amount of vitamins and minerals. Stress increases your need for vitamins and minerals, especially C, B-complex and zinc.
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.

Also limit the amount of cholesterol you consume. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in every cell of the body. It helps digest some fats, strengthen cell membranes and make hormones. But too much cholesterol can be dangerous: When blood cholesterol reaches high levels, it can build up on artery walls, increasing the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. Although dietary cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, the greater risk comes from a diet high in saturated and trans fats.
While women tend to need fewer calories than men, our requirements for certain vitamins and minerals are much higher. Hormonal changes associated with menstruation, child-bearing, and menopause mean that women have a higher risk of anemia, weakened bones, and osteoporosis, requiring a higher intake of nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin B9 (folate).
Most experts recommend 1,300 mg of calcium a day for girls aged 9 through 19. Natural sources of calcium, such as low-fat dairy products, are the smartest choice, because they also contain vitamin D and protein, both required for calcium absorption. Milk, yogurt, and cheese contribute most of the calcium in our diets. Some vegetables are also good sources, including broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage. Many foods are supplemented with calcium, including some brands of orange juice and tofu. The daily intake for Vitamin D is 600 IU per day for most children and healthy adults.
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.
You can get calcium from dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, canned fish with soft bones (sardines, anchovies and salmon; bones must be consumed to get the benefit of calcium), dark-green leafy vegetables (such as kale, mustard greens and turnip greens) and even tofu (if it's processed with calcium sulfate). Some foods are calcium-fortified; that is, they contain additional calcium. Examples include orange juice, certain cereals, soy milk and other breakfast foods. Talk to your health care professional about whether you should take calcium supplements if you don't think you're getting enough calcium from food sources.
Use MyPlate (PDF – 281 KB) as a guide to build a healthy diet. Think about filling your plate with foods from the five food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy — at each meal. Snacks can be a good way to fill in fruits and whole grains you might have missed at meals. Most of us don’t need complicated calorie counting programs or special recipes for healthy eating.
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