The average woman should get 10 to 35 percent of her daily calories from protein. Protein helps prevent muscle tissue from breaking down and repairs body tissues. Sources of animal proteins include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and cheese. Vegetable proteins include dried beans and peas, peanut butter, nuts, bread and cereal. (A three-ounce serving of cooked chicken contains about 21 grams of protein.)
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.
Calcium: “Getting enough calcium is important for all ages, but it's particularly important during adolescence and early adulthood, when bones are absorbing calcium,” says Heather Schwartz, MS, RD, a medical nutrition therapist at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics. Calcium and vitamin D are often paired in fortified foods such as milk. The reason: The body needs D in order to absorb calcium.
Much of the sugar we eat is added to other foods, such as regular soft drinks, fruit drinks, puddings, ice cream and baked goods, to name just a few. Soft drinks and other sugary beverages are the No. 1 offenders in American diets. A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 8 teaspoons of sugar, exceeding the daily maximum amount recommended for women.
To many women, the word diet implies two things that are notorious saboteurs: deprivation and an end-date. Whether it's the grapefruit diet, Atkins, or some other fad diet in the latest fashion magazine (that's why they're fashion magazines, not health magazines), diets require deprivation. They force the follower to give up enjoyable foods, endure intense hunger or some combination of the two, which usually leads to intense cravings and even more intense binges.
A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight and one 30 or above is considered obese. For an idea of what this means, a 5-foot 5-inch woman who weighs 150 pounds is overweight with a BMI of 25. At 180 pounds, she would be considered obese, with a BMI of 30. Keep in mind that the tables aren't always accurate, especially if you have a high muscle mass; are pregnant, nursing, frail or elderly; or if you are a teenager (i.e., still growing).
Omega-3 fatty acids — essential to health and happiness, reviewed by Dr. Mary James, MD. From conception to old age, every cell in our bodies needs omega-3’s. Learn how omega-3 fatty acids benefit every body system — from the brain to the heart, breast, bones, colon, skin and more, this is one nutrient that can make all the difference to our health, our happiness, and — perhaps best of all — our longevity.
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.
Stress can wreak serious havoc on our bodies, but we actually need stress to a certain extent. For example, if we were running from a bear, we would need our stress response to kick in full force. We would start breathing faster, sending more oxygen to muscles to fuel movement, then our bodies would release stress hormones from our adrenal glands (cortisol) to heighten our focus by tapping into energy reserves for fuel so we could flee the danger. Cortisol isn’t always the bad guy, but when this response is high and chronic it tells your body to eat more than it “needs” because it’s thinking much more about survival, not stress over a work deadline or relationship woe. Cortisol is needed, but high levels of cortisol over time will contribute to those mentioned health impacts, especially abdominal weight gain! The problem is when we’re actually not in danger and our bodies are living in this state chronically. THIS is the magic piece of the puzzle – learning how we can turn off that heightened stress response when it’s not needed.
Fats contain both saturated and unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fatty acids. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol more than unsaturated fat, which may even help lower harmful cholesterol. Reducing saturated fat (most comes from meat, dairy and bakery products) to less than seven percent of total daily calories may help you reduce your cholesterol level. Whenever possible, replace saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
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).
Fiber is an important part of an overall healthy eating plan. Good sources of fiber include fortified cereal, many whole-grain breads, beans, fruits (especially berries), dark green leafy vegetables, all types of squash, and nuts. Look on the Nutrition Facts label for fiber content in processed foods like cereals and breads. Use the search tool on this USDA page to find the amount of fiber in whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
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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.
It has not been scientifically established that large amounts of vitamins and minerals or dietary supplements help prevent or treat health problems or slow the aging process. Daily multivitamin tablets can be beneficial to some people who do not consume a balanced diet or a variety of foods. Generally, eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods provides the necessary nutrients your body needs. Eating whole foods is preferable to supplements because foods provide dietary fiber and other nutritional benefits that supplements do not. If you choose to take vitamin and mineral supplements, it is recommended to choose a multi-vitamin that does not exceed 100 percent of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI).
Many women and teenage girls don't get enough calcium. Calcium-rich foods are critical to healthy bones and can help you avoid osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disease. Additionally, recent studies suggest that consuming calcium-rich foods as part of a healthy diet may aid weight loss in obese women while minimizing bone turnover. The National Institute of Medicine recommends the following calcium intake, for different ages:
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.
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.