Some fat is an important part of your diet; fat is part of every cell. It maintains skin and hair; stores and transports fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; keeps you warm; and protects your internal organs. It even helps your mental processes—not surprising given that fat comprises about 60 percent of your brain. But many women consume too much fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you keep your total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of your total calories.
A well-balanced diet, comprised of a variety of foods, adequately meets women’s needs for vitamins, minerals and energy. For good health, women need to pay special attention to calcium, iron and folate (folic acid) intake. A healthy diet also should minimize the intake of fat and sugar. Diets high in saturated or trans fat can promote high levels of blood cholesterol and increase risk for heart disease. A diet that includes high sugar provides empty calories, or calories that do not provide any nutritional value and often times replace more nutritious food selections.
Good sources of iron include liver, kidneys, red meat, poultry, eggs, peas, legumes, dried fruits and dark, green leafy vegetables. Three ounces of cooked chicken liver contains 7.2 mg of iron; a cup of cooked spinach contains 6.4 mg. Your health care professional will probably recommend iron supplements during pregnancy (probably starting at 30 mg per day).
Calcium: For adult women aged 19-50, the USDA recommended daily allowance is 1,000 mg/day. For women over 50, the recommended daily allowance is 1,200 mg/day. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, grains, tofu, cabbage, and summer squash. Your body cannot take in more than 500 mg at any one time and there’s no benefit to exceeding the recommended daily amount.
Most vegetarians eat milk products and eggs, and as a group, these lacto-ovo-vegetarians enjoy good health. A healthful vegetarian diet falls within the food pyramid 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) should consult a health care professional about adding vitamin and mineral supplements; make sure you consume sufficient quantities of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.
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).
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.