Among other things, you need calcium to build healthy bones and teeth, keep them strong as you age, regulate the heart’s rhythm, and ensure your nervous system functions properly. Calcium deficiency can lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Women are at a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis, so it’s important to get plenty of calcium, in combination with magnesium and vitamin D, to support your bone health.
Folate is most important for women of childbearing age. If you plan to have children some day, think of folate now. Folate is a B vitamin needed both before and during pregnancy and can help reduce risk of certain serious common neural tube birth defects (which affect the brain and spinal chord). Women ages 15-45 should include folate in their diet to reduce the risk for birth defects if one becomes pregnant, even if one is not planning a pregnancy.
You can get calcium from dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese, canned fish with soft bones (sardines, anchovies and salmon; bones must be consumed to get the benefit of calcium), dark-green leafy vegetables (such as kale, mustard greens and turnip greens) and even tofu (if it's processed with calcium sulfate). Some foods are calcium-fortified; that is, they contain additional calcium. Examples include orange juice, certain cereals, soy milk and other breakfast foods. Talk to your health care professional about whether you should take calcium supplements if you don't think you're getting enough calcium from food sources.
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.
Most vegetarians eat milk products and eggs, and as a group, these lacto-ovo-vegetarians enjoy good health. A healthful vegetarian diet falls within the food pyramid 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) should consult a health care professional about adding vitamin and mineral supplements; make sure you consume sufficient quantities of protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.
A 55-year-old woman who gets less than 30 minutes of daily physical activity should eat five ounces of grains; two cups of vegetables; one and a half cups of fruit; three cups of milk; five ounces of meat and beans; five teaspoons of oils, and no more than 130 calories of additional fat and sugar. If she got 30 to 60 minutes of daily exercise, she could increase her intake to six ounces of grains; two and a half cups of vegetables; and up to 265 additional calories of fat and sugar.
Good sources of iron include liver, kidneys, red meat, poultry, eggs, peas, legumes, dried fruits and dark, green leafy vegetables. Three ounces of cooked chicken liver contains 7.2 mg of iron; a cup of cooked spinach contains 6.4 mg. Your health care professional will probably recommend iron supplements during pregnancy (probably starting at 30 mg per day).
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.
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Some fat is an important part of your diet; fat is part of every cell. It maintains skin and hair; stores and transports fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; keeps you warm; and protects your internal organs. It even helps your mental processes—not surprising given that fat comprises about 60 percent of your brain. But many women consume too much fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you keep your total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of your total calories.