Females and Nutritious Dining

Navigating the realm of nutrition as a woman can be a challenge. Juggling personal and professional obligations, societal expectations to both eat and look a certain way, and the myriad details of daily life can make it tough for any woman to consistently eat healthily.


11/18/202310 min read

woman exercising indoors
woman exercising indoors

Navigating the realm of nutrition as a woman can be a challenge. Juggling personal and professional obligations, societal expectations to both eat and look a certain way, and the myriad details of daily life can make it tough for any woman to consistently eat healthily. Incorporating the right food into your diet however, can elevate your mood, enhance your energy, help maintain a healthy weight, and support you through the various phases of a woman's life.

Often, as women we tend to sideline our own nutritional requirements. A hectic lifestyle, prioritizing family needs over personal, or following a stringent diet that denies essential nutrients and leaves you feeling irritable and drained, might sound familiar.

Furthermore, as women, our specific nutritional needs are frequently overlooked in dietary research. Most studies focus on male subjects, whose hormone levels are relatively stable and predictable, making the findings potentially irrelevant or misleading for women. This can lead to substantial nutritional deficiencies in your everyday consumption.

While what's beneficial for one woman may not necessarily be the same for another, the crux lies in tailoring your diet to satisfy your fundamental nutritional necessities. If you're aiming to enhance your mood and energy, manage stress or PMS, increase fertility, have a healthy pregnancy, or alleviate menopause symptoms, these nutritional pointers can assist you in leading a healthy, dynamic, and full life at every stage.

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How men's and women's nutritional needs differ

In childhood, the dietary needs of boys and girls are largely identical. But with onset of puberty, women begin to develop distinct nutritional needs. These needs continue to change as we age and undergo more physical and hormonal transformations, necessitating an evolving diet to meet these needs.

While women generally require fewer calories than men, their needs for specific vitamins and minerals are much higher. Hormonal changes tied to menstruation, childbearing, and menopause put women at a higher risk of anaemia, weakened bones, and osteoporosis, necessitating higher intake of nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin B9 (folate).

Supplements are not a comprehensive solution

In the past, women have often resorted to vitamins and supplements to compensate for gaps in their diet. But, while supplements can serve as a protective measure against occasional nutrient deficiencies, they cannot offset an imbalanced or unhealthy diet.

For a wholesome intake of nutrients from your diet, strive for a diet abundant in fruit, vegetables, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and low in processed, fried, or sugary foods.

Emphasis on Calcium for lifelong strong bones

Calcium, among other things, is required for the construction and maintenance of robust bones and teeth, keeping them strong as you age, regulating the heart's rhythm, and ensuring proper functioning of your nervous system. Calcium deficiency can lead to, or intensify, mood issues such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep irregularities. If your diet lacks sufficient calcium, your body will divert the required calcium from your bones for standard cell functionality, which can induce weak bones or osteoporosis. Women are at a higher risk than men of developing osteoporosis; hence, ample intake of calcium, combined with magnesium and vitamin D, is crucial to bolster your bone health.

Recommended dosage of Calcium, Magnesium, and Vitamin D

Calcium: For adult women aged 19-50, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests a daily dose of 1,000 mg. For women over 50, the recommended daily intake is 1,200 mg. Good calcium sources include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, grains, tofu, cabbage, and summer squash. Your body can't absorb more than 500 mg at once, and exceeding the suggested daily dose offers no additional benefits.

Magnesium: Magnesium amplifies calcium absorption from the blood into the bone. In fact, your body can't process calcium without magnesium. The USDA recommends a daily dose of 320 to 400 mg for magnesium. Abundant sources include leafy green vegetables, summer squash, broccoli, halibut, cucumber, green beans, celery, and a range of seeds.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is also vital for the correct metabolism of calcium. Aim for a daily intake of 600 IU (international units). Vitamin D can be obtained from about half an hour of direct sunlight, and from foods such as salmon, shrimp, vitamin-D fortified milk, cod, and eggs.

For information on rich sources of these nutrients, consult Calcium and Bone Health.

Contemplating Dairy Consumption Due to Saturated Fat?

Calcium-rich dairy products can be a contentious topic because they often come packaged with high levels of saturated fat. As suggested by USDA, saturated fat should account for no more than 10% of your daily expended calories. This implies that everyday favorites such as whole milk, cheese, and yogurt can be partaken in moderation, and low-fat or non-fat versions of these dairy products can be chosen when available. Do bear in mind, however, that low-fat dairy items often come with added sugars which can negatively impact your wellbeing and weight management efforts.

Exercise and its Significance for Healthy Bones

Your bone health is profoundly influenced not just by your diet but also your level of physical activity. Lifestyle choices such as smoking and excessive alcohol intake can heighten the odds of osteoporosis setting in. On the other hand, weight-bearing activities like walking, dancing, yoga, or weightlifting can reduce this risk.

Strength and resistance training—employing machinery, free weights, resistance bands, or just your body weight—can be notably effective in averting bone loss with growing age.

Iron: Unraveling its Inadequate Intake

Iron is essential for producing hemoglobin, the oxygen carrier in your bloodstream, and is vital for healthy skin, hair, and nails. Women of reproductive age require over double the iron amount than men, due to blood loss during menstruation, and even more during pregnancy or breastfeeding phases. Despite these needs, many of us often face iron deficiency in our diets, making iron deficiency anemia the leading deficiency in women.

Anemia can sap your energy levels, leading to feelings of weakness, exhaustion, and breathlessness following even minor physical exertion. Iron deficiency may also affect your emotional health, causing symptoms similar to depression, such as irritability and difficulty concentrating. Although a simple blood test can diagnose iron deficiency, if you're continually feeling tired and irritable, examining your iron intake can be beneficial.

Your Daily Iron Requirements

The U.S. Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) recommends adolescent women aged 14-18 consume 15mg of iron daily (27mg if pregnant, 10 mg if lactating). For adult women aged 19-50, the recommendation is 18mg/day (27mg if pregnant, 9mg if lactating). Women above 51 years of age should take 8mg daily.

Many women fall short of these iron recommendations partially because red meat, one of the best iron sources, also has high saturated fat content. Although leafy green vegetables and beans are iron-rich and low in saturated fat, the iron they contain isn't as well absorbed by the body like that from animal sources. Other iron-rich foods include poultry, seafood, dried fruit such as raisins and apricots, along with iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas.

Iron-Rich Food Sources

Sources of iron range from breakfast cereals fortified with 100% iron, providing 18mg per serving, to a variety of meats, legumes, and vegetables. Some notable examples include dark chocolate (7mg per 3 ounces), cooked oysters (8mg per 3 ounces), braised beef bottom round (2mg per 3 ounces), and white beans (8mg per cup). Even leafy green vegetables such as spinach offer 3mg of iron per 1/2 cup.

Source: National Institutes of Health.

Understanding the Significance of Folate (Vitamin B9) for Women in Their Reproductive Years

Vitamin B9, more commonly known as folate or as folic acid when added to foods or taken as a supplemental form, is a critical nutrient that many women fail to consume sufficiently. Intake of folate can immensely decrease the risk of giving birth to babies with neurological defects when consumed before and during the early stages of pregnancy. It also reduces a woman's susceptibility to heart disease and certain types of cancer, making it a crucial nutrient for all women of reproductive age, regardless of pregnancy plans (it's important to note that many pregnancies are unintentional). Folate also aids in the production of estrogen during menopause.

Deficiency of folate in the diet can have adverse effects on one's mood, causing irritation, fatigue, reduced concentration, and making you more prone to depression and headaches.

Nutritional Recommendations to Enhance Fertility

If you're preparing for pregnancy, along with maintaining adequate folate intake, consider the following:

  • Abstain from alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, since they have a negative impact on fertility.

  • Choose organic foods and grass-fed or free-range meat and eggs, to minimize exposure to pollutants and pesticides that can inhibit fertility.

  • Take a prenatal supplement - the most crucial supplements for fertility are folic acid, zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and vitamin C.

  • Consider your partner's diet - Around 40 percent of fertility issues are associated with the male partner. Encourage your partner to incorporate supplements such as zinc, vitamin C, calcium, and vitamin D.

Folate Intake Recommendations

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), all women and adolescent girls who may become pregnant should consume 400 mcg (micrograms) of folate or folic acid daily. The advised intake rises to 600 mcg for pregnant women, and 500 mcg for breastfeeding mothers.

Folate can be found in leafy greens, fruits and fruit juices, nuts, beans, and peas. Many grain-based products such as cereals, bread, and pasta are also fortified with folic acid.

Providing a List of Foods Rich in Folate and Folic Acid

The amount of folate or folic acid (in micrograms or mcg) present per serving of select foods is provided below.

Food Folate (mcg) per serving Beef liver, braised, 3 ounces 215 Ground beef, 85% lean, cooked, 3 ounces 7 Chicken breast, roasted, 1/2 breast 3 Spinach, boiled, 1/2 cup 131 Asparagus, boiled, 4 spears 89 Brussels sprouts, frozen, boiled, 1/2 cup 78 Lettuce, romaine, shredded, 1 cup 64 Broccoli, chopped, frozen, cooked, 1/2 cup 52 Mustard greens, chopped, frozen, boiled, 1/2 cup 52 Black-eyed peas (cowpeas), boiled, 1/2 cup 105 Green peas, frozen, boiled, 1/2 cup 47 Kidney beans, canned, 1/2 cup 46 Breakfast cereals, fortified with 25% of the DV 100 Spaghetti, cooked, enriched, 1/2 cup 83 Bread, white, 1 slice 43 Yeast, baker's, 1/4 teaspoon 23 Tomato juice, canned, 3/4 cup 36 Orange juice, 3/4 cup 35 Orange, fresh, 1 small 23 Papaya, raw, cubed, 1/2 cup 27 Banana, 1 medium 24 Crab, Dungeness, 3 ounces 36 Fish, halibut, cooked, 3 ounces 12 Egg, whole, hard-boiled, 1 large 22 Milk, 1% fat, 1 cup 12

Material obtained from the National Institutes of Health.

Nutritional Guidelines to Mitigate Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) Symptoms

Hormonal shifts can often lead to bloating, cramps, and fatigue a week or so before your menstrual cycle. Your diet can have a significant role in alleviating these and other premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms.

Increase your iron and zinc intake. Some women report that foods like red meat, liver, eggs, leafy greens, and dried fruits can help manage PMS symptoms.

Boost your calcium consumption. Studies have found that calcium-rich foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and leafy greens can help ease PMS symptoms.

Skip trans fats, deep-fried foods, and sugar. These can incite inflammation, in turn triggering PMS symptoms.

Reduce bloating by limiting salt. Cutting out salty snacks, frozen dinners, and processed food can have a huge impact if you tend to retain water and experience bloating.

Keep food sensitivities in check. Dairy and wheat are common triggers for PMS due to food sensitivities. Experiment by eliminating suspected foods to see if it improves your symptoms.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Both can exacerbate PMS symptoms, so it's best to avoid them during this period in your cycle.

Consider vitamin supplements. Daily multivitamins or supplements like magnesium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E may help some women relieve cramps. However, supplements are not a replacement for a balanced diet. Always aim to get essential vitamins and nutrients from your food intake.

[Read: coping methods for severe PMS or Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)].

Incorporate essential fatty acids to alleviate cramps. Research suggests that Omega-3 fatty acids can mitigate the discomfort associated with cramps. Consider consuming more fish or flaxseed to see if it alleviates your PMS symptoms.

Nourishment guidelines for expectant or nursing mothers

For the healthy growth of your unborn child, you only require approximately 300 additional calories per day. There's a natural weight increase during pregnancy, and breastfeeding can assist in shedding the extra weight post delivery.

Suggestions for a pregnancy diet

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for the neurological and early vision development of your baby, as well as for producing breast milk postpartum. Endeavor to consume two servings weekly of cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, or anchovies. Sardines are often regarded as the most safe and sustainably-sourced fish available, whereas seaweed provides a vegetarian Omega-3 option.

Avoid alcohol consumption. There's no safe quantity for the baby.

Reduce caffeine intake, as it has been related to a greater miscarriage risk and can interfere with iron absorption.

Opt for smaller, frequent meals over fewer large ones. This approach can help combat and lessen morning sickness and heartburn.

Exercise care around foods potentially harmful to pregnant women. These include soft cheeses, sushi, deli meats, raw sprouts, and fish such as albacore tuna, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel, known for high mercury levels.

High-quality protein is vital for your baby's developing nervous system and brain. Select high-quality protein from sources like fish, poultry, dairy, and plant-based proteins, instead of relying solely on red meat.

Suggestions for a breastfeeding diet

Maintain a slightly greater calorie intake to help your body sustain a consistent milk supply.

Emphasize consumption of healthy protein and calcium sources, which are needed more during the nursing phase. Lactating women require about 20 grams additional high-quality protein each day than before pregnancy, to facilitate milk production.

Continue taking prenatal vitamin supplements, they're beneficial during breastfeeding unless your doctor advises otherwise.

Abstain from alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. Adopt similar guidelines as during pregnancy, avoid drinks containing alcohol, smoking, and lower your caffeine intake.

In case your baby shows signs of an allergic reaction, your diet may require modification. Typical food allergens include cow's milk, eggs, wheat, fish, and citrus. For allergies related to cow's milk, your calcium requirement can be met through other high-calcium foods such as kale, broccoli, or sardines.

Dietary tips to monitor the symptoms of menopause

In the years leading up to menopause, your reproductive system gets ready to retire and your body adjusts its hormone production. With more conscious eating, you can soften the impact of common symptoms.

Increase calcium intake (alongside vitamin D and magnesium) to bolster bone health and prevent osteoporosis.

Restrict consumption of wine, sugar, white flour products, and coffee to manage hot flashes more effectively.

Increase intake of good fats. Incorporating more Omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids can stimulate hormone production and lend your skin a healthy radiance. Evening primrose oil and blackcurrant oil are rich sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid known to balance hormones and combat hot flashes.

Consider flaxseed for hot flashes. Loaded with lignans, flaxseed can stabilize hormone levels and manage hot flashes. Adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to your everyday diet could help. Try seasoning your soups, salads, or main courses with it.

Consume more soy-based products. Soy produces are rich in phytoestrogens, plant-derived compounds similar to the body's own estrogen. Certain studies suggest soy could help control menopausal symptoms. Natural soy sources include soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and soy nuts.