Eating Right to Look and Feel Your Best
A healthy diet gives you energy, supports your mood, maintains your weight, and keeps you looking your best. It can also be a huge support through the different stages in life. Healthy food can help reduce PMS, boost fertility, combat stress, make pregnancy and nursing easier, and ease symptoms of menopause. Whatever your age, committing to a healthy diet will help you look and feel your best so that you stay on top of your commitments and enjoy life.
Good nutrition for women of all ages
Good nutrition starts with the basics: a well-rounded diet consisting of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and high quality sources of protein. These kinds of foods provide women with plenty of energy, the means for lifelong weight control, and the key ingredients for looking and feeling great at any age. Instead of obsessing over specific foods or nutrients, remember that it’s your overall eating pattern that’s most important.
Top diet and nutrition tips for women
- Focus on whole, plant-based foods. Diets such as the Mediterranean diet that emphasize fruits and vegetables, seafood, and healthy fats can help control your weight and reduce your risk for certain diseases. Carotenoid-rich fruits and veggies, such as tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, melons, and peppers, may even reduce your risk for breast cancer. Add leafy green vegetables and a variety of whole grains, beans, and other legumes to give you filling fiber and keep you going throughout the day. Try to find organic, minimally processed, or locally grown foods whenever possible and make these foods the mainstay of your diet.
- Bone up on calcium. Women are at a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis, so it’s important to get plenty of calcium to support your bone health. Dairy products are high in calcium and recent evidence suggests that consuming whole-fat dairy can also have beneficial effects on weight control. Consider plant-based sources of calcium like beans, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens as well.
- Make sure you get enough iron. Many women don’t get enough iron in their diet. On top of that, women lose a lot of this important mineral during menstruation. Boost your intake by eating iron-rich foods such as red meat, dark poultry, lentils, spinach, almonds, and iron-fortified cereals.
- Cut back on alcohol and caffeine. Women who have more than two alcoholic drinks a day are at higher risk of osteoporosis and postmenopausal breast cancer. Caffeine consumption interferes with hormone levels and also increases the loss of calcium. Both alcohol and caffeine can also worsen PMS and menopause symptoms and adversely affect fertility. Try to limit alcohol consumption to one glass a day and caffeine to one cup a day.
- Cut down on sugar. Sugars that are not found naturally in foods contribute zero nutrients but lots of calories to your diet. Naturally occurring sugars are found in products containing milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose), while added sugars can be found in the most unexpected foods, often hidden in the ingredients list as agave nectar, cane crystals, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltose, malt syrup, and more.
Hidden Sugar: The Secret Saboteur of a Healthy Diet
Many women consume more sugar than is healthy, but reducing the amount of candy and desserts you eat is only part of the solution. Sugar is also hidden in foods as diverse as bread, canned soups, beans, and vegetables, pasta sauce, margarine, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, and ketchup. It’s also in a lot of foods labelled as “low fat” or “reduced fat.” Manufacturers often replace the fat in their products with sugar to improve the taste. But the sugar can be much worse for you than the fat. All this hidden sugar amounts to nothing but a lot of empty calories which can cause mood swings and wreck a healthy diet.
- Check labels and opt for “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” products. Use fresh or frozen ingredients instead of canned goods, and avoid fast food meals.
- Avoid replacing healthy sources of saturated fat, such as whole fat yogurt, with low-fat versions that are packed with sugar or artificial sweetener.
- Soft drinks (including soda, energy drinks, and coffee drinks) are one of the largest sources of hidden sugar. One can of soda contains 10-12 teaspoons of sugar and around 150 calories, so a few soft drinks can quickly add up to a good portion of your daily calorie intake.
- Switching to diet soda isn’t the answer, as studies suggest the artificial sweetener it contains triggers sugar cravings that can contribute to weight gain. Instead, try switching to water with lemon, unsweetened iced tea, or carbonated water with a splash of juice.
- By slowly reducing the sugar in your diet a little at a time, you’ll give your taste buds time to adjust and you’ll be able to wean yourself off the craving for sweets and sugary food.
Diet & nutrition for women tip 1: Eat to control cravings and boost energy
Your diet has a major effect on your food cravings, your stress levels, and your energy throughout the day. By making smart food choices and developing healthy eating habits, you’ll find it much easier to stay slim, control cravings, and feel energetic all day long.
- Eat breakfast. Get your metabolism going in the morning by eating a healthy breakfast. Studies show that people who eat breakfast tend to weigh less than those who skip it. A solid breakfast provides energy for the day.
- Eat regularly. Going too long between meals can make you feel irritable and tired, so aim to eat something at least every three to four hours. Support your body’s natural cycle of energy by eating a substantial breakfast, a nutritious lunch, a snack around 2 pm (to compensate for the body’s natural low point that occurs around 3 each afternoon), and a light early dinner.
- Cut the junk. The ups and downs that come with eating sugary snacks and simple carbohydrates cause extreme swings in energy level and mood. Cutting out these foods can be tough, but if you can resist for several days, your cravings will subside.
- Focus on complex carbohydrates. Foods such as baked potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, whole grain breads, and bananas boost your “feel-good” serotonin levels without a crash. They also provide plenty of fiber, so you feel full much longer.
- Boost energy with quality protein. Protein is an essential part of any healthy diet, but it’s important to vary your diet with fish, chicken and turkey, dairy, and plant-based protein sources, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and non-GMO soy products. If you eat red meat, opt for organic, grass-fed rather than processed meats, such as hotdogs, bacon, and salami, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
How much protein do women need?
Protein needs are based on weight rather than calorie intake. Adult women should eat at least 0.8g of quality protein per kilogram (2.2lb) of body weight per day. That means a 150lb woman should eat at least 54 grams of high-quality protein per day. A higher intake may help to lower your risk for obesity, osteoporosis, type-2 diabetes, and stroke.
- Nursing women need about 20 grams more high-quality protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production.
- Older women should aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of lean protein for each kilogram of weight. This translates to 68 to 102g of protein per day for a woman weighing 150 lbs.
- Divide your protein intake among meals but aim for 25 to 40g of high-quality protein per meal; less than 15g won’t benefit bone or muscle.
Source: Environmental Nutrition
Diet & nutrition for women tip 2: Eat good carbs and whole grains
You may think that the key to losing weight or avoiding weight gain is cutting out carbohydrates. But carbs, like fats, are a vital part of a healthy diet. They give you the fuel you need to get through your day, fight fatigue, and stay feeling full. One of the common mistakes many of us make in our diets is to cut back on foods with a high fat content and replace them with the wrong type of carbs—those packed with hidden sugar. In other words, we replace one thing in our diets with something that is much worse. When it comes to carbs, the key is to choose the right kinds.
Complex vs. simple carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates—the “good carbs”—have not been stripped of their fiber and nutrients. Because they’re rich in fiber, they keep you full longer and help with weight control. Good sources of complex carbs include whole grains such as whole grain brown rice, stone ground whole wheat, millet, or quinoa, as well as beans, other legumes, fruit, and vegetables.
Simple carbohydrates—the “bad carbs”—have been stripped of their fiber and many of their nutrients. Simple carbs lead to a dramatic spike in your blood sugar, followed by a rapid crash. These carbs are much less efficient at filling you up and keeping you energized. Simple carbs include white flour, white rice, sugary foods, and foods which aren’t obviously sweet but contain a lot of hidden sugar.
- Leave you full and satisfied
- Are packed with nutrients
- Provide long-lasting energy
- Leave you hungry for more
- Are mostly empty calories
- Provide only short-lived energy
Diet & nutrition for women tip 3: Go good fat, not no fat!
Many women have been led to believe that dietary fat is unhealthy and contributes to weight gain. But fats are a necessary part of a healthy diet. Again, what really matters are the types of fat you eat. So don’t go no fat, go good fat.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—the “good fats”—contribute to your health and vitality, support your mood and brain function, help you maintain a healthy weight and improve the look of your hair, skin, and nails.
- Monounsaturated fats are found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
- Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Other sources include flaxseed and walnuts.
While many health organizations maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, other nutrition experts take a different view. The latest studies suggest that not all saturated fat is a dietary demon and people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less. In fact, whole-fat dairy may even have health benefits for women. Of course, the saturated fat in whole milk dairy, coconut oil, or salmon is different to the unhealthy saturated fat found in pizza, French fries, and processed meat products, so it’s important to choose your saturated fats carefully.
- Avoid saturated fat from processed meats, packaged meals, fried and takeout food.
- Contrary to what we’ve been told for years, eating whole-milk dairy products is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity. This may be because full-fat dairy makes you feel fuller, faster, and keeps you feeling satisfied for longer, thus helping you to eat less overall. Choose organic or raw milk, cheese, butter, and yoghurt when possible.
- When you eat red meat, look for “organic” and “grass-fed.” Proponents of the saturated fat movement believe that this doesn’t carry the same health risks as consuming meat from industrially-raised animals fed with antibiotics, growth hormones, and GMO feed.
- Don’t eat just red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) but vary your diet with free range chicken, eggs, fish, and vegetarian sources of protein.
Trans fat—the “bad fats”—increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. No amount is considered healthy.
- Trans fats are found in commercially-baked goods, packaged snack foods, fried food, and anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil in the ingredients, even if it claims to be trans fat-free.
Women need healthy fats in their diet to look and feel great
- Healthy fats boost your brainpower and mood. Fats are essential to healthy brain function. They put you in a good mood and keep you mentally sharp.
- Healthy fats promote healthy pregnancies. When you’re pregnant, both you and your growing baby need healthy fat to feel your best. Fat is especially important to your baby’s developing brain and nervous system.
- Healthy fats contribute to lifelong beauty. Fats are essential for vibrant, glowing skin, hair, and nails. A lack of healthy fats in your diet can lead to dull, flaky skin, brittle nails, and dry or easily damaged hair.
- Healthy fats help control cravings. Because fat is so dense in calories, a little can go a long way in making you feel full. Good fats such as whole-milk dairy, fish, avocados, nuts, or seeds can make satisfying snacks. Adding a little tasty fat—such as butter—to a plate of vegetables can also make it easier to eat healthy food and improve the overall quality of your diet.
- Fats lower the glycemic index of foods, easing the spike in blood sugar that results from eating carbohydrates.
- You need fat in order to absorb certain vitamins. Many important vitamins—including vitamins A, D, E, and K—are fat-soluble, meaning you need fat in your system in order to absorb them.
Diet & nutrition for women tip 4: Focus on foods for strong bones
It’s important for women of all ages to eat foods that contribute to strong, healthy bones, as women have a higher risk of osteoporosis than men. Osteoporosis is largely preventable with good nutrition and exercise. After the age of 30, you stop building bone mass, but you can eat to maintain strong bones at any age. The key is to get enough of the nutrients that support bone health.
The role of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D in women’s bone health
Calcium and magnesium, in combination with vitamin D, are vital for women’s bone health.
- Calcium: The recommended daily allowance varies from 400 to 1,200 mg/day. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, oatmeal and other grains, tofu, cabbage, summer squash, green beans, garlic, and sea vegetables. Calcium is absorbed slowly and your body cannot take in more than 500 mg at any one time and there’s no benefit to exceeding the recommended daily allowance. In fact, doing so may even harm the heart.
- Magnesium: The recommended daily allowance for magnesium is 500 to 800 mg/day. Calcium only works when taken in conjunction with magnesium. Good sources of magnesium include leafy green vegetables, summer squash, broccoli, halibut, cucumber, green beans, celery, and a variety of seeds, including pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, and flax seeds.
- Vitamin D: Aim for between 400 and 1,000 IU (international units) daily. You can get Vitamin D from about half an hour of direct exposure to sunlight, and from foods and supplements. Salmon is an excellent source of vitamin D. Other good sources include shrimp, vitamin-D fortified milk, cod, and eggs.
Diet & nutrition for women tip 5: Add fiber for weight loss
That’s right, fiber benefits much more than just digestive health and all those bodily functions we’d rather not think about. Eating foods high in dietary fiber can lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, improve the health of your skin, and even help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
- Adding fiber can help you feel full sooner. Since fiber stays in the stomach longer than other foods, that feeling of fullness will stay with you much longer, helping you eat less.
- Many high-fiber foods, such as fruit and vegetables, tend to be low in calories, so adding fiber to your diet makes it easier to cut calories.
- By regulating your blood sugar levels, fiber can help maintain your body’s fat-burning capacity and avoid insulin spikes that leave you feeling drained and craving unhealthy foods.
- Eating plenty of fiber can also move fat through your digestive system at a faster rate so that less of it can be absorbed.
- When you fill up on high-fiber foods such as fruit, you’ll also have more energy for exercising.
How to add more fiber to your diet
Women aged 18 to 50 need at least 25 grams of fiber per day; women over 50 a little less, at least 21 grams per day.
- Good sources of fiber include whole grains, wheat cereals, barley, flaxseed, oatmeal, beans, nuts, vegetables such as carrots, celery, and tomatoes, and fruits such as apples, berries, citrus fruits, and pears.
- Try starting your day with a high-fiber cereal, or adding wheat bran, flaxseed, and fresh or dried fruit to your cereal.
- Replace white rice, white bread, and pasta with brown rice and whole grain products. Choose whole grain bread for toast and sandwiches.
- Snack on fruit and vegetables. Choose recipes that feature these high-fiber ingredients, like veggie stir-fries or fruit salad.
- Bulk up salads by adding nuts, seeds, kidney beans, peas, or black beans. Add more fiber to soups and stews by adding barley, lentils, or rice.
Nutrition tips to ease the symptoms of PMS
Bloating, cramping, and fatigue experienced the week or so before your period are often due to fluctuating hormones. Diet can play an important role in alleviating these and other symptoms of PMS.
- Boost your calcium intake. Several studies have highlighted the role calcium-rich foods—such as milk, yoghurt, cheese, and leafy green vegetables—play in relieving PMS symptoms.
- Avoid trans fats, refined sugar, and salt. Sugar worsens mood swings and salt worsens water retention and bloating. Check the ingredients of food to spot any hidden sugar.
- Cut out caffeine and alcohol. Both are known to worsen PMS symptoms, so avoid them during this time in your cycle.
- Eat foods high in iron and zinc. Some women find that foods such as red meat, liver, eggs, leafy green veggies, and dried fruit can help ease the symptoms of PMS.
- Add essential fatty acids to your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help with cramps. See if eating more fish or flaxseed or taking fish oil supplements eases your PMS symptoms.
- Consider vitamin supplements. For some women, taking a daily multivitamin or supplementing with magnesium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E may help relieve cramps.
Nutrition tips for pregnant or breastfeeding women
You only need about 300 extra calories per day to maintain a healthy pregnancy and provide sufficient nutrition for your growing baby. However, gaining some weight is natural during pregnancy, and nursing can help with weight loss after the baby is born.
Nutrition for a healthy pregnancy
- Omega-3 fatty acids—especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—are essential for the neurological and early visual development of your baby and for making breast milk after birth. Two weekly servings of cold water fish such as wild salmon, canned light tuna (not albacore), sardines, herring, or anchovies should provide sufficient DHA. If you’re worried about mercury and other toxins, aim for wild-caught rather than farmed fish. Sardines are widely considered the safest and most sustainable fish to eat, while seaweed is a rich vegetarian source of DHA. High quality fish oil or algae-based supplements can provide the necessary Omega-3s with a lower risk of contaminants.
- High-quality protein is also important to your baby’s developing brain and nervous system. Opt for fish, poultry, dairy, and plant-based protein sources as well as healthy sources of organic, grass-fed red meat.
- Abstain from alcohol. No amount is safe for the baby.
- Cut down on caffeine, which has been linked to a higher risk of miscarriage and can interfere with iron absorption. Limit yourself to no more than one caffeinated drink per day.
- Eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than a few large ones. This will help prevent and reduce morning sickness and heartburn.
- Be cautious about foods that may be harmful to pregnant women. These include soft cheeses, sushi, deli meats, raw sprouts, and fish such as albacore tuna, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel that may contain high levels of mercury.
Nutrition for breastfeeding women
- Keep your caloric consumption a little higher to help your body maintain a steady milk supply.
- Emphasize healthy sources of protein and calcium, which are in higher demand during lactation.
- Take prenatal vitamin supplements, which are still helpful during breastfeeding, unless your physician tells you otherwise.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Just as with the pregnancy guidelines above, refrain from drinking and smoking, and reduce your caffeine intake.
If your baby develops an allergic reaction, you may need to adjust your diet. Common food allergens include cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, fish, and citrus. For a cow’s milk allergy, you can meet your calcium needs through other high calcium foods, such as kale, broccoli, or sardines.
Nutrition tips to boost fertility
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, as they are known to decrease fertility.
- Eat organic foods and grass-fed or free-range meat and eggs, in order to limit pollutants and pesticides that may interfere with fertility.
- Take a prenatal supplement. The most important supplements for fertility are folic acid, zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and vitamin C.
- Don’t overlook your partner’s diet. About 40 percent of fertility problems are on the male’s side, so encourage your partner to add supplements such as zinc, vitamin C, calcium, and vitamin D.
Nutrition tips to ease menopause
For up to a decade prior to menopause, your reproductive system prepares to retire and your body shifts its production of hormones. By eating especially well as you enter your menopausal years, you can ease this transition.
- Boost calcium intake. Calcium supports bone health and helps prevent osteoporosis. Also make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamin D and magnesium, both of which support calcium absorption.
- Limit wine, sugar, white flour products, and coffee. Hot flashes improve in almost all cases when those foods are reduced or eliminated.
- Eat more good fats. Omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids can help boost hormone production and give your skin a healthy glow. Evening primrose oil and black currant oil are good sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid that can help balance your hormones and alleviate hot flashes.
- Try flaxseed for hot flashes. Flaxseed is rich in lignans, which help stabilize hormone levels. Flaxseed can be particularly effective in managing hot flashes. Add one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed to your daily diet. Try sprinkling it on soups, salads, or main dishes.
- Consider eating more non-GMO soy. Soy products are high in phytoestrogens, plant-based estrogens that are similar to estrogen produced by the body. Some studies suggest that soy may help manage menopausal symptoms. Try natural, non-GMO soy sources such as soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and soy nuts.