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.
Iron: Essential for healthy blood cells, iron becomes especially important when girls begin to menstruate. With each period, a woman loses small amounts of iron. “About 10% of American women are iron deficient,” says Dorothy Klimis-Zacas, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Maine and co-editor of Nutritional Concerns of Women (CRC Press, 2003). “About 5% have iron deficiency anemia.” Symptoms of low iron include fatigue, impaired immunity, and poor performance at school or work.
Don’t fear the fats! Healthy fats provide the structural component to many cell membranes which are essential for cellular development and carrying various messages (hormones) through our body quickly. Protein is also responsible for hormone production, so it’s important for women to get foods that will provide you with healthy fats and protein. Women’s cycles can also deplete your body of B vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium so you should be aware of your whole food intake and possibly choose to supplement (see above for more if it’s right for you).
The recommended daily intake for vitamin E is 15 mg. Don't take more than 1,000 mg of alpha-tocopherol per day. This amount is equivalent to approximately 1,500 IU of "d-alpha-tocopherol," sometimes labeled as "natural source" vitamin E, or 1,100 IU of "dl-alpha-tocopherol," a synthetic form of vitamin E. Consuming more than this could increase your risk of bleeding because vitamin E can act as an anticoagulant (blood thinner).
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.
What you eat is even more important as you enter your 40s. Women need protein (meat, fish, dairy, beans, and nuts), carbohydrates (whole grains), fats (healthy oils), vitamins, minerals, and water. These foods have been linked to some disease prevention, such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The American Academy of Family Physicians supports the development of healthy food supply chains in supplemental nutrition programs so as to broaden the availability of healthy food.
Consult your health care professional. Women of childbearing age may want to consider taking folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of having a pregnancy affected with neural tube defects. Many women and teenage girls don't get enough calcium or vitamin D, both of which are critical to healthy bones and avoiding osteoporosis. Some people with diabetes appear to benefit from chromium. Vegetarians, especially vegans, may want to consider supplements to obtain nutrients they aren't getting from animal products.
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.