Grains, vegetables and fruits are essential to getting the vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates (starch and dietary fiber) and other nutrients you need to sustain good health. Some of these nutrients may even reduce your risk of certain kinds of cancer. But experts say we rarely eat enough of these foods. To make matters worse, we also eat too much of unhealthy types of food, including fat (and cholesterol), sugar and salt.
Popular belief says if you really want to make a big change, focus on one new healthy habit at a time. But Stanford University School of Medicine researchers say working on your diet and fitness simultaneously may put the odds of reaching both goals more in your favor. They followed four groups of people: The first zoned in on their diets before adding exercise months later, the second did the opposite, the third focused on both at once, and the last made no changes. Those who doubled up were most likely to work out 150 minutes a week and get up to nine servings of fruits and veggies daily while keeping their calories from saturated fat at 10 percent or less of their total intake.
The overall effect is a tighter, more toned physique, but body weight could stay the same or even increase. Therefore, the obsession with numbers on a scale is unfounded; one can greatly improve appearance, enhance fitness levels, and eliminate unwanted fat all while maintaining a constant weight. Focus instead on a combination of body fat measurements in trouble spots and the image in the mirror.
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 mcg of folic acid (a B vitamin) daily to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected with spina bifida or other neural-tube defects. Women who are actively trying to get pregnant should consume 600 mcg, and lactating women should consumer 500 mcg. Women of childbearing age should also take care to meet the daily requirements for calcium, fiber, iron, protein and vitamin D. Discuss supplements with a health care professional, however. Iron and vitamin D in particular can be dangerous in high amounts.
Calcium: “Getting enough calcium is important for all ages, but it's particularly important during adolescence and early adulthood, when bones are absorbing calcium,” says Heather Schwartz, MS, RD, a medical nutrition therapist at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. Calcium and vitamin D are often paired in fortified foods such as milk. The reason: The body needs D in order to absorb calcium.
Foods that contain natural folic acid include orange juice, green leafy vegetables, peas, peanuts and beans. (One cup of cooked kidney beans contains 230 mcg of folic acid.) Fortified foods, such as ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, also contain a synthetic form of folic acid, which is more easily absorbed by your body than the natural form. Folic acid is now added to all enriched grain products (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron have been added to enriched grains for many years).
The average woman should get 10 to 35 percent of her daily calories from protein. Protein helps prevent muscle tissue from breaking down and repairs body tissues. Sources of animal proteins include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese. Vegetable proteins include dried beans and peas, peanut butter, nuts, bread and cereal. (A three-ounce serving of cooked chicken contains about 21 grams of protein.)
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Low-fat diets also can help you lose weight.16 But the amount of weight lost is usually small. You can lose weight and lower your risk for heart disease and stroke if you follow an overall healthy pattern of eating that includes more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans that are high in fiber, nuts, low-fat dairy and fish, in addition to staying away from trans fat and saturated fat.
Focus on the long term. Diets fail when people fall back into poor eating habits; maintaining weight loss over the long term is exceedingly difficult. Most people regain the weight they've lost. In fact, some studies indicate that 90 to 95 percent of all dieters regain some or all of the weight originally lost within five years. Your program should include plans for ongoing weight maintenance, involving diet, exercise and a behavioral component. While there are some physical reasons for obesity, there are also behavioral reasons for excessive eating. For example, many women use food as a source of comfort (perhaps to deal with stress). For these women, a weight loss program with a behavioral component will offer alternatives to replace food in this role.