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:
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.
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).
Before and during pregnancy. You need more of certain nutrients than usual to support your health and your baby’s development. These nutrients include protein, calcium, iron, and folic acid. Many doctors recommend prenatal vitamins or a folic acid supplement during this time. Many health insurance plans also cover folic acid supplements prescribed by your doctor during pregnancy. You also need to avoid some foods, such as certain kinds of fish. Learn more about healthy eating during pregnancy in our Pregnancy section.
To achieve these goals, cut down on saturated fat from animal products (meat and the skin of poultry, whole-fat dairy products, and certain vegetable foods — palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and coconut). And it's just as important to reduce your consumption of trans fatty acids, the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in stick margarine, fried foods, and many commercially baked goods and snack foods.
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.
For healthy bones and teeth, women need to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods every day. Calcium keeps bones strong and helps to reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease in which the bones become weak and break easily. Some calcium-rich foods include low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese, sardines, tofu (if made with calcium sulfate) and calcium-fortified foods including juices and cereals. Adequate amounts of vitamin D also are important, and the need for both calcium and vitamin D increases as women get older. Good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, such as salmon, eggs and fortified foods and beverages, such as some yogurts and juices.
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.
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.
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Oils. When cooking try to use oils from plants instead of solid fats like butter, margarine, or coconut oil. See this list of oils and fats to see how healthy each type of cooking oil and solid fat is. Most women eat too much solid fat through packaged foods like chips or salad dressing, and not enough healthy fats like olive oil or the type of fat in seafood.