Use MyPlate (PDF – 281 KB) as a guide to build a healthy diet. Think about filling your plate with foods from the five food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy — at each meal. Snacks can be a good way to fill in fruits and whole grains you might have missed at meals. Most of us don’t need complicated calorie counting programs or special recipes for healthy eating.
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.
While what works best for one woman may not always be the best choice for another, the important thing is to build your dietary choices around your vital nutritional needs. Whether you’re looking to improve your energy and mood, combat stress or PMS, boost fertility, enjoy a healthy pregnancy, or ease the symptoms of menopause, these nutrition tips can help you to stay healthy and vibrant throughout your ever-changing life.
As the science of nutrition continually evolves, researchers recognize that nutrients needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle must be tailored to the individual for maximum effectiveness. Recognizing that people are not all alike and that one size does not fit all when it comes to planning and achieving a healthful diet, the Institute of Medicine's dietary guidelines, titled "Dietary Reference Intakes for Macronutrients," stress the importance of balancing diet with exercise and recommends total calories based on an individual's height, weight and gender for each of four different levels of physical activity.
If you do decide to diet, you still need to maintain good nutrition. You want to cut back on calories, not nutrients. And while you want to reduce fat, don't eliminate it entirely. Some studies suggest that older women who maintain a higher body-fat percentage are less likely to suffer from osteoporosis and other conditions associated with menopause. Fat cells also retain estrogen, which helps maintain the calcium in your bones. Younger women should be careful, too: a low body fat percentage can lead to infertility; below 17 percent may lead to missed periods, also known as amenorrhea.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the neurological and early visual development of your baby and for making breast milk after birth. Aim for two weekly servings of cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, or anchovies. Sardines are widely considered the safest and most sustainable fish to eat, while seaweed is a rich vegetarian source of Omega-3s.
All youth need calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass during their early years of life. Low calcium intake is one important factor in the development of osteoporosis, a disease in which bone density decreases and leads to weak bones and future fractures. Women have a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis. During adolescence and early adulthood, women should include good food sources of calcium in their diets This is when bone growth is occurring and calcium is being deposited into the bone. This occurs in women until they are 30 to 35 years of age. Women 25 to 50 years of age should have 1,000 mg of calcium each day, while women near or past menopause should have 1,200 mg of calcium daily if they are taking estrogen replacement therapy; otherwise, 1,500 mg per day is recommended. Women older than 65 years of age should have 1,500 mg per day.
Calcium: Although some bone loss is inevitable with age, women can slow the process by getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Women between the ages of 50 and 70 need 1200 mg of calcium and 600 IU of Vitamin D a day. Women older than 70 require 1200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of Vitamin D a day. Because the skin becomes less efficient at converting sunlight to vitamin D as we age, older women may need more vitamin D in the form of supplements. Talk to your doctor.
Carbohydrates should provide 45%–65% of your daily calories. Most of those calories should come from the complex carbohydrates in high-fiber and unrefined foods, such as bran cereal and other whole-grain products, brown rice, beans and other legumes, and many fruits and vegetables. These carbohydrates are digested and absorbed slowly, so they raise the blood sugar gradually and don't trigger a large release of insulin. People who eat lots of these foods have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol levels and a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A good amount of soluble fiber in the diet lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and high-fiber diets reduce the risk of intestinal disorders ranging from constipation and diverticulosis to hemorrhoids. Some studies have shown that fiber may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Men need more fiber than women: 38 vs. 25 grams a day before the age of 50 and 30 vs. 21 grams a day thereafter.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) food pyramid system (www.mypyramid.gov) provides a good start by recommending that the bulk of your diet come from the grain group—this includes bread, cereal, rice and pasta— the vegetable group; and the fruit group. Select smaller amounts of foods from the milk group and the meat and beans group. Eat few—if any—foods that are high in fat and sugars and low in nutrients. The amount of food you should consume depends on your sex, age and level of activity.
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:
Always be sure you get regular servings of dairy products, calcium-rich tofu and greens, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Also, eat lean meat and/or high-quality protein combinations such as pinto beans and rice. Avoid fiber supplements as these bind calcium and other minerals in the intestinal tract. When this happens the absorption of essential nutrients decreases.
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