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.
What you eat and drink is influenced by where you live, the types of foods available in your community and in your budget, your culture and background, and your personal preferences. Often, healthy eating is affected by things that are not directly under your control, like how close the grocery store is to your house or job. Focusing on the choices you can control will help you make small changes in your daily life to eat healthier.
The overall effect is a tighter, more toned physique, but body weight could stay the same or even increase. Therefore, the obsession with numbers on a scale is unfounded; one can greatly improve appearance, enhance fitness levels, and eliminate unwanted fat all while maintaining a constant weight. Focus instead on a combination of body fat measurements in trouble spots and the image in the mirror.
Folate or vitamin B9 (also known as folic acid when used in fortified foods or taken as a supplement) is another nutrient that many women don’t get enough of in their diets. Folate can greatly reduce the chance of neurological birth defects when taken before conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Folate can also lower a woman’s risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, so even if you’re not planning on getting pregnant (and many pregnancies are unplanned), it’s an essential nutrient for every woman of childbearing age. In later life, folate can help your body manufacture estrogen during menopause.
Loss of taste. Some medicines alter your sense of taste making you lose your appetite. Ask your health care professional if there are alternatives to the medicine you're taking. You might also experiment with spices to make foods tastier. Also, rotating tastes of each food on your plate, rather than eating one food at once, can help you taste various flavors better. Foods with strong scents also taste better, since taste and smell are linked.
Nutrition is particularly important when you are pregnant. Weight gain during pregnancy is normal—and it's not just because of the growing fetus; your body is storing fat for lactation. The National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine (NAS/IOM) has determined that a gain of 25 to 35 pounds is desirable. However, underweight women should gain about 28 to 40 pounds, and overweight women should gain at least 15 pounds. The IOM has not given a recommendation for an upper limit for obese women, but some experts cap it as low as 13 pounds. If you fit into this category, discuss how much weight you should gain with your health care professional. Remember that pregnancy isn't the time to diet. Caloric restriction during pregnancy has been associated with reduced birth weight, which can be dangerous to the baby.
Most Americans get far more protein than they really need. In theory, that may not be wise. Like carbohydrates, protein provides 4 calories per gram, and excess calories from any source will be stored as body fat. Excess dietary protein increases calcium loss in the urine, perhaps raising the risk for osteoporosis ("thin bones," more a worry for women) and kidney stones (a particular worry for men).
The best training tool you're not using: a jump rope. “It may seem a little juvenile until you think of all the hot-bodied boxing pros who jump rope every single day,” says Landon LaRue, a CrossFit level-one trainer at Reebok CrossFit LAB in L.A. Not only is it inexpensive, portable, and easy to use almost anywhere, you’ll burn about 200 calories in 20 minutes and boost your cardiovascular health while toning, he adds.
For some simple suggestions about eating a healthy, balanced diet, check out the "New American Plate Concept" from the American Institute for Cancer Research. This concept suggests you fill your plate with two-thirds or more of vegetables, fruits, whole grains or beans and only one-third or less of animal protein. This simple principle can guide you toward healthier eating. For more details, visit http://www.aicr.org/site/PageServer?pagename=reduce_diet_new_american_plate.
Iron is one of the keys to good health and energy levels in women prior to menopause. Foods that provide iron include red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, kale, spinach, beans, lentils and some fortified ready-to-eat 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.
Dietary fiber is found in plant foods like whole-grain breads and cereals, beans and peas, and other vegetables and fruits. At least one study suggests that women who eat high amounts of fiber (especially in cereal) may have a lower risk for heart disease. High-fiber intake is also associated with lower cholesterol, reduced cancer risk and improved bowel function. And one long-term study found that middle-aged women with a high dietary fiber intake gained less weight over time than women who ate more refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta.
Getting enough water also is important. Many experts recommend at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily—more if you exercise frequently or are exposed to extremes of heat and cold. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize drinking more water and other calorie-free beverages, along with fat-free or low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juices, instead of calorie-packed regular sodas.
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.
A workout partner not only keeps you accountable, she also may help you clock more time at the gym and torch more fat. A British survey of 1,000 women found that those who exercise with others tend to train six minutes longer and burn an extra 41 calories per session compared to solo fitness fanatics. [Tweet this fact!] Women with Bikram buddies and CrossFit comrades said they push themselves harder and are more motivated than when they hit the gym alone.
Long-term goals are imperative, but they can make you feel overwhelmed or discouraged at times. Instead of thinking about how many dress sizes smaller you want to be in four months, focus on small everyday victories, suggests Michael Snader, BodyAware specialist and nutritionist at The BodyHoliday, a health and wellness resort in St. Lucia. “For example, today you are going to eat breakfast, fit in a workout, and drink more water,” he says. Stay focused on the present, and your future will be successful.
Iron: Iron, too, remains a critical nutrient. Adult women between the ages of 19 and 50 need 18 mg a day. Pregnant women should shoot for 27 mg a day. “The volume of blood almost doubles when women are pregnant, which dramatically increases the demand for iron,” Schwartz tells WebMD. After delivery, lactating women need far less iron, only about 9 mg, because they are no longer menstruating. But as soon as women stop breast-feeding, they should return to 18 mg a day.
In the stereotypical Ozzie and Harriet family of the 1950s, men ruled the roost while women ruled the roast. That's no longer true (if it ever was), but in most households women are still in charge of nutrition. They stock the pantry, plan the menus, and fill the plates. In most households it's a good thing, since the average woman knows more about nutrition than the average man. But when it comes to optimal nutrition, there are differences between the sexes. The differences are subtle, but they may affect a man's health.
The daily calcium recommendations are 1,000 milligrams a day for women under 50, and 1,500 milligrams a day for women 51 and older. Oddly enough, these are the same requirements for men, who are much less prone to osteoporosis than women. But the recommendation takes into account the fact that women are smaller than men. Thus the amount of daily calcium is greater for women on a proportional basis.
Notice that alcohol isn't included in a food group. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation, up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. Alcohol offers little nutritional value, and when used in excess, can cause short-term health damage, such as distorted vision, judgment, hearing and coordination; emotional changes; bad breath; and hangovers. Long-term effects may include liver and stomach damage, vitamin deficiencies, impotence, heart and central nervous system damage and memory loss. Abuse can lead to alcohol poisoning, coma and death. Pregnant women should not drink at all because alcohol can harm the developing fetus and infant. According to the March of Dimes, more than 40,000 babies are born each year with alcohol-related damage. Even light and moderate drinking during pregnancy can hurt your baby. If you are breastfeeding, discuss drinking alcohol with your health care professional. After clearing it with your doctor, you may be able to have an occasional celebratory single, small alcoholic drink, but you should abstain from breastfeeding for two hours after that drink.
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.
If you usually head to the gym after work, take heed: Mental exhaustion can make you feel physically exhausted, even when you have plenty of energy, reports a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study. When people played a brain-draining computer game before exercising, they reported a subsequent workout as being harder, yet their muscles showed the same activity as they did doing the same workout after an easy mental game. So if you think you can’t eke out those last 10 minutes on the rowing machine, remember: You can! [Tweet this motivation!]
When you’re at the bar or a party and starving, your options aren’t always the best. But if it’s bruschetta, chips and salsa, or wings, go for the chicken (though nuts would be even better). Protein fills you up faster than carbs do, making it less likely that you’ll overeat, says Christopher Ochner, Ph.D., a research associate at New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center. And since it’ll keep you satiated longer, you won’t be as tempted when your friend orders a brownie sundae or brings out a tray of blondies.
Instinct may tell you to slow down when running in wintery conditions, but the secret to not slipping is actually to speed up and shorten your stride. Aim to have each foot strike the ground 90 times per minute, says Terry Chiplin, owner of Active at Altitude, a Colorado-based facility for endurance athletes. This high cadence helps ensure that each foot lands beneath the center of your weight rather than ahead of it, which can throw off your balance on slick terrain.
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 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).