March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
A balanced diet is a cornerstone of health. Women, like men, should enjoy a variety of foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, low-fat dairy and lean protein. But women also have special nutrient needs, and, during each stage of a woman's life, these needs change.
Nutrient-rich foods provide energy for women's busy lives and help to prevent disease. A healthy daily diet includes:
- At least three 1-ounce servings of whole grains such as whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta, brown rice or oats.
- Three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products including low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt or cheese.
- Five to 6 ounces of protein such as lean meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, beans or peas and nuts.
- Two cups of fruits — fresh, frozen or canned without added sugar.
- Two-and-a-half cups of colorful vegetables — fresh, frozen or canned without added salt.
Iron is one of the keys to good health and energy levels in women. Iron-rich food sources include red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, kale, spinach, beans, lentils and fortified breads and cereals. Plant-based sources of iron are more easily absorbed by your body when eaten with vitamin C-rich foods. So eat fortified cereal with strawberries on top, spinach salad with mandarin orange slices or add tomatoes to lentil soup.
Folic Acid During the Reproductive Years
When women reach childbearing age, they need to eat enough folic acid to decrease risk of birth defects. The requirement is at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day. Be sure to consume adequate amounts of folic acid daily from fortified foods or supplements, in addition to food forms of folate from a varied diet. Citrus fruits, leafy greens, beans and peas naturally contain folate. There are many folic acid fortified foods such as cereals, rice and breads.
Daily Calcium Requirements
For healthy bones and teeth, women need to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods every day. Calcium keeps bones strong and prevents 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.
Foods to Limit
To keep weight in check at any age, women should avoid a lot of excess calories from added sugars, fat and alcohol.
- Limit regular soft drinks, sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, baked goods and fried foods.
- Limit alcohol intake to one drink per day. One drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.
- Opt for low-fat dairy and meat products instead of their full-fat counterparts.
Eat fewer foods that are high in saturated fat — the kind found in fatty meats, sausages, cheese and full-fat dairy products, baked goods and pizza.
Balancing Calories with Activity
Since women typically have less muscle, more fat and are smaller than men, you need fewer calories to maintain a healthy body weight and activity level. Moderately active women need 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day. Women who are more physically active may require more calories.
Exercise is an important part of a woman's health. Regular daily activity helps with weight control, muscle strength and stress management.