Folate is most important for women of childbearing age. If you plan to have children some day, think of folate now. Folate is a B vitamin needed both before and during pregnancy and can help reduce risk of certain serious common neural tube birth defects (which affect the brain and spinal chord). Women ages 15-45 should include folate in their diet to reduce the risk for birth defects if one becomes pregnant, even if one is not planning a pregnancy.
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).
Carbohydrates should provide 45%–65% of your daily calories. Most of those calories should come from the complex carbohydrates in high-fiber and unrefined foods, such as bran cereal and other whole-grain products, brown rice, beans and other legumes, and many fruits and vegetables. These carbohydrates are digested and absorbed slowly, so they raise the blood sugar gradually and don't trigger a large release of insulin. People who eat lots of these foods have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol levels and a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A good amount of soluble fiber in the diet lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and high-fiber diets reduce the risk of intestinal disorders ranging from constipation and diverticulosis to hemorrhoids. Some studies have shown that fiber may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Men need more fiber than women: 38 vs. 25 grams a day before the age of 50 and 30 vs. 21 grams a day thereafter.
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.
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Women need more of this mineral because they lose an average of 15 to 20 milligrams of iron each month during menstruation. Without enough iron, iron deficiency anemia can develop and cause symptoms that include fatigue and headaches. After menopause, body iron generally increases. Therefore, iron deficiency in women older than 50 years of age may indicate blood loss from another source and should be checked by a physician.
A 55-year-old woman who gets less than 30 minutes of daily physical activity should eat five ounces of grains; two cups of vegetables; one and a half cups of fruit; three cups of milk; five ounces of meat and beans; five teaspoons of oils, and no more than 130 calories of additional fat and sugar. If she got 30 to 60 minutes of daily exercise, she could increase her intake to six ounces of grains; two and a half cups of vegetables; and up to 265 additional calories of fat and sugar.
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.
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.
If you do decide to diet, you still need to maintain good nutrition. You want to cut back on calories, not nutrients. And while you want to reduce fat, don't eliminate it entirely. Some studies suggest that older women who maintain a higher body-fat percentage are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis and other conditions associated with menopause. Fat cells also retain estrogen, which helps maintain the calcium in your bones. Younger women should be careful, too: a low body fat percentage can lead to infertility; below 17 percent may lead to missed periods, also known as amenorrhea.
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.