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Eating healthy is important for a woman’s body and mind. But what does eating healthy mean? On the internet, in books and journals, there is a wealth of nutrition information at your fingertips. Important dietary needs include carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. Having a balanced diet and physical activity plan can help keep you ready for class demands and activities on campus. To get the basics on nutritional needs, visit the websites listed below. Please note, every body has different nutrient needs. The major nutrients benefiting women’s health are listed on this page.
There's not much doubt about this one: Women need more iron than men, because they lose iron with each menstrual period. After menopause, of course, the gap closes. The RDA of iron for premenopausal women is 18 mg a day, for men 8 mg. Men should avoid excess iron. In the presence of an abnormal gene, it can lead to harmful deposits in various organs (hemochromatosis). Since red meat is the richest dietary source of iron, it's just as well that men don't need to wolf down lots of saturated fat to get a lot of iron.
Nutrition is particularly important during pregnancy to ensure your health and the health of the baby. It's normal to gain weight during pregnancy—not just because of the growing fetus, but because you'll need stored fat for breast-feeding. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends a gain of 25 to 35 pounds in women of normal weight when they get pregnant; 28 to 40 pounds in underweight women; and at least 15 pounds in women who are overweight when they get pregnant. The IOM has not given a recommendation for an upper limit for obese women, but some experts cap it as low as 13 pounds. If you fit into this category, discuss how much weight you should gain with your health care professional.
Iron helps to create the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. It’s also important to maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails. Due to the amount of blood lost during menstruation, women of childbearing age need more than twice the amount of iron that men do—even more during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, many of us aren’t getting nearly enough iron in our diets, making iron deficiency anemia the most common deficiency in women.
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.
Folic acid: This form of B vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects, especially spina bifida and anencephaly. These defects can be devastating and fatal. Many foods are now fortified with folic acid. Most women get enough as part of their diet through foods such as leafy greens, a rich source of folic acid. However, some doctors recommend that women take a pregnancy supplement that includes folic acid, just to make sure they are getting the recommended 400 to 800 micrograms.
Nutrition is particularly important when you are pregnant. Weight gain during pregnancy is normal—and it's not just because of the growing fetus; your body is storing fat for lactation. The National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine (NAS/IOM) has determined that a gain of 25 to 35 pounds is desirable. However, underweight women should gain about 28 to 40 pounds, and overweight women should gain at least 15 pounds. The IOM has not given a recommendation for an upper limit for obese women, but some experts cap it as low as 13 pounds. If you fit into this category, discuss how much weight you should gain with your health care professional. Remember that pregnancy isn't the time to diet. Caloric restriction during pregnancy has been associated with reduced birth weight, which can be dangerous to the baby.
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.
Stress can wreak serious havoc on our bodies, but we actually need stress to a certain extent. For example, if we were running from a bear, we would need our stress response to kick in full force. We would start breathing faster, sending more oxygen to muscles to fuel movement, then our bodies would release stress hormones from our adrenal glands (cortisol) to heighten our focus by tapping into energy reserves for fuel so we could flee the danger. Cortisol isn’t always the bad guy, but when this response is high and chronic it tells your body to eat more than it “needs” because it’s thinking much more about survival, not stress over a work deadline or relationship woe. Cortisol is needed, but high levels of cortisol over time will contribute to those mentioned health impacts, especially abdominal weight gain! The problem is when we’re actually not in danger and our bodies are living in this state chronically. THIS is the magic piece of the puzzle – learning how we can turn off that heightened stress response when it’s not needed.
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).
Not everyone who is underweight suffers from an eating disorder, but anorexia and bulimia are serious health problems in this country; an estimated 500,000 women suffer from anorexia, and 1 to 2 million women struggle with bulimia. Women with anorexia nervosa starve themselves and/or exercise excessively, losing anywhere from 15 percent to 60 percent of their normal body weight. Some die. Women with bulimia nervosa binge on large quantities of food—up to 20,000 calories at one time—and then try to get rid of the excess calories. Some purge by inducing vomiting, abusing laxatives and diuretics or by taking enemas. Others fast or exercise to extremes.
You should eat a healthful, well-balanced diet during pregnancy. However, you should avoid certain foods, including raw or undercooked fish, poultry and meat; raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs; unpasteurized juices; raw sprouts; unpasteurized milk products; and some soft cheeses (cream cheese is OK). Avoid deli meats and frankfurters unless they have been reheated to steaming hot before eating. To prevent food-borne illnesses, take the following precautions: