Breast cancer. Osteoporosis.
Irondeficiency. Weight reduction. What do these things have in common?
They are either unique to women, or are more prevalent in women. And
they affect current recommendations on what women should eat for optimum
While new information on what's good and what's bad
seems to surface almost daily, some basic guide lines have taken root
over the past several years.
The bottom line is:
Eat a variety of foods
Maintain healthy weight
Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol
Choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grain products
Use sugar and salt/sodium only in moderation
If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.
sounds simple enough. Except, what exactly is variety? Cake one
day,cookies the next? What is a diet low in fat, saturated fat,
andcholesterol? And, finally, what parts of a healthy diet have
specialimportance for women?
There are several vitamins and minerals essential to a healthy diet.
Vitamins and Minerals
well-balanced diet will usually meet women's allowances for them.
However, for good health, women need to pay special attention to two
minerals, calcium and iron.
women and men need enough calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass
during their early years of life. Low calcium intake appears to be one
important factor in the development of osteoporosis. Women have a
greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis.
A condition in
which progressive loss of bone mass occurs with aging, osteoporosis
causes the bones to be more susceptible to fracture. If a woman has a
high level of bone mass when her skeleton matures, this may modify her
risk of developing osteoporosis.
Therefore, particularly during
adolescence and early adulthood, women should increase their food
sources of calcium. "The most important time to get a sufficient amount
of calcium is while bone growth and consolidation are occurring, a
period that continues until approximately age 30 to 35," says Marilyn
Stephenson, a registered dietitian with FDA's Center for Food Safety and
Applied Nutrition. "The idea is, if you can build a maximum peak of
calcium deposits early on, this may delay fractures that occur later in
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium for woman
19 to 24 is 1,200 milligrams per day. For women 25 and older, the
allowance drops to 800 milligrams, but that is still a significant
amount, says Stephenson. "The need for good dietary sources of calcium
continues throughout life," she says.
How do you get enough calcium
without too many calories and fat? After all, the foods that top the
calcium charts--milk, cheese, ice cream--aren't calorie and fat
"There are lots of lower fat choices," says Stephenson.
"There's 1 percent or skim milk instead of whole milk. There's a good
variety of lower fat cheeses, yogurts, and frozen yogurts, and there's a
whole flock of substitutes for ice cream."
In addition to dairy
foods, other good sources of calcium include salmon, tofu (soybean
curd), certain vegetables (for example, broccoli), legumes (peas and
beans), calcium-enriched grain products, lime-processed tortillas,
seeds, and nuts.
women, the RDA for iron is 15 milligrams per day, 5 milligrams more
than the RDA for men. Women need more of this mineral because they lose
an average of 15 to 20 milligrams of iron each month during
menstruation. Without enough iron, iron deficiency anemia can develop
and cause symptoms that include pallor, fatigue and headaches.
menopause, body iron stores generally begin to increase. Therefore, iron
deficiency in women over 50 may indicate blood loss from another
source, and should be checked by a physician.
fish and poultry--are good and important sources of iron. In addition,
the type of iron, known as heme iron, in these foods is well absorbed in
the human intestine.
Dietary iron from plant sources, called
non-heme, are found in peas and beans, spinach and other green leafy
vegetables, potatoes, and whole-grain and iron-fortified cereal
products. Although non-heme iron is not as well absorbed as heme iron,
the amount of non-heme iron absorbed from a meal is influenced by other
constituents in the diet. The addition of even relatively small amounts
of meat or foods containing vitamin C substantially increases the total
amount of iron absorbed from the entire meal.
Calories and Weight Control
Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommends
that the average woman between 23 and 50 eat about 2,200 calories a day
to maintain weight.
She cautions, however, that cutting back on
calories isn't always the answer to losing weight. "You don't really
want to cut back any more [calories] if you're down around that [1,500
calories] range," says Stephenson. She explains that the fewer the
calories you have to work with, the harder it is to meet all your daily
requirements for a healthy diet.
you find you are gaining weight, you need to think of not only cutting
calories, but also about increasing exercise," she says. "Calories are
only half the equation for weight control. Physical activity burns
calories, increases the proportion of lean to fat body mass, and raises
your metabolism. So, a combination of both calorie control and increased
physical activity is important for attaining healthy weight.
"On the other hand, if you've been pigging out--well, you know what you have to do."
tend to have higher levels than men of a desirable type of cholesterol
called HDLs (high-density lipoproteins) until menopause, leading some
researchers to believe there is a link between HDLs and estrogen levels.
But this doesn't let women off the hook--a diet high in saturated fat
and cholesterol can still mean trouble.
For both women and men, blood
cholesterol levels of below 200 milligrams are desirable. Levels
between 200 and 239 milligrams are considered borderline, and anything
over 240 milligrams is high. High levels of blood cholesterol increase
the risk of coronary heart disease.
To keep levels in the good range,
the National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Heart, Lung,
and Blood Institute recommends eating no more than 300 milligrams of
cholesterol a day. Cholesterol is found only in food from animal
sources, such as egg yolks, dairy products, meat, poultry, shellfish,
and--in smaller amounts--fish and some processed products containing
Even more important than limiting cholesterol to under
300 milligrams is keeping saturated fat to under 10 percent of total
calories, says Nancy Ernst, the nutrition coordinator for the National
Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
"Don't even think about cholesterol in your diet," says Ernst. "Focus on reducing saturated fat."
the United States, out of every 100,000 women, approximately 27 die
from breast cancer each year. In Japan, breast cancer deaths are fewer
than 7 per 100,000. Some scientists think that the difference in death
rates may be related to the different amounts of fat in the average diet
in each country--40 percent for American women versus 20 percent in
"We believe pretty strongly in the link [between high-fat
diets and breast cancer]," says Jeffrey McKenna, director of NCI's
Cancer Awareness Program.
Population studies have also linked high-fat diets to other cancers, particularly colorectal cancer.
does, however, serve a purpose in the diet. Fats in foods provide
energy and help the body absorb certain vitamins. But it is as easy as
pie (and doughnuts, ice cream, and sirloin steaks) to eat too much.
a healthy diet, the diet and health report of the National Research
Council recommends reducing fat to no more than 30 percent of total
calories. (Figure out your fat intake.) But that's not all. In terms of
heart disease, the kinds of fat you eat are as important as how much.
are three kinds of fat--saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
All three are equal when it comes to calories--9 per gram (compared to 4
calories per gram for protein or carbohydrate). But they aren't equal
when it comes to how they affect your health.
More than anything else
in the diet, saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol level.
Because of this risk, less than one-third of your daily fat intake (less
than 10 percent of total calories) should come from saturated fats.
the bad news. The good news is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated may
actually lower blood cholesterol levels. The diet and health report
recommends that not more than 10 percent of total calories should be
from polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat should make up the
remaining 10 percent.
The foods with the highest amounts of saturated
fat come from animals--meat, of course, and foods derived from animals,
such as butter, cream, ice cream, and cheese. In addition to animal
products, coconut and palm kernel oils are very high in saturated
fat--over 90 percent.
The best sources for polyunsaturated fats are
plant-based oils--sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, and safflower.
Monounsaturated fats are found in the largest amounts in olive, canola
and peanut oils.
FiberAn apple a
day--that is, a whole apple with the skin--will give you approximately
3.6 grams of fiber. That's a good start, but you still need a lot more
fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to meet the daily level of 20 to 30
grams of fiber recommended by the National Cancer Institute.
foods with plenty of complex carbohydrates and fiber (vegetables,
fruits, and grain products) is part of a healthy diet for several
reasons. A fiber-rich diet is helpful in the management of constipation
and may be related to lower rates of colon cancer. These types of foods
are generally low in fat and can be substitutes for fatty foods.
comes in two forms--insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber, mostly
found in whole-grain products, vegetables and fruit, provides bulk for
stool formation and helps move wastes more quickly through the colon.
Another benefit is the full feeling fiber may create in the stomach, a
possible deterrent to overeating.
Soluble fiber has been linked to
lowering blood cholesterol levels, but that's still a research area
according to the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. There
are many sources of soluble fiber, including peas and beans, many
vegetables and fruits, and rice, corn and oat bran. There are even small
amounts in pasta, crackers, and other bakery products.
foods containing fiber seem to exert a protective effect against some
cancers, the diet and health report points out there is no conclusive
evidence that dietary fiber itself, rather than other components, exerts
this effect. Therefore, the report does not recommend the use of fiber
As important as fiber is to good health, it can be
overdone. NCI recommends an upper limit of 35 grams a day. More probably
won't further increase the benefits from fiber, and may interfere with
the body's ability to absorb iron and other minerals.
the amount of fiber in your diet, do it slowly, so your body can become
accustomed to handling it. Adding too much fiber too quickly may lead
to uncomfortable side effects, including abdominal discomfort,
flatulence and diarrhoea.
Carefully selecting foods for a well-balanced diet can end up a wasted effort if equal care isn't used in the kitchen.
Some important points to help make the most of healthy food:
To help reduce fat, broil, bake or microwave food rather than frying or deep-fat frying.
Cook vegetables in as little water as possible, or, instead of boiling food, try steaming.
The steamer basket keeps the food above the water so the nutrients can't be washed away.
Also, heat can destroy some nutrients, so don't overcook. Use fresh foods as soon as possible to avoid loss of vitamins.
Season vegetables with herbs and spices instead of high-fat sauces, butter or margarine.
lemon juice as a salad dressing. Substitute plain low-fat yogurt,
blender-whipped low-fat cottage cheese, or buttermilk in recipes that
call for sour cream or mayonnaise.
Use skim or low-fat milk in place of whole milk in puddings, soups, and baked products.