Diet and Nutrition for Women
Eating Right to Look and Feel Your BestA 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 starts with the basics: a well-rounded diet consisting of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean 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.
Top diet and nutrition tips for women
- Focus on whole, plant-based foods. Fill most of your plate with fruits and leafy green vegetables. Also include a variety of whole grains, beans, and other legumes to give you filling fiber and keep you going throughout the day. Try to find 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. While dairy products are high in calcium, their animal fat and protein can accelerate bone loss. So also consider plant-based sources of calcium like beans, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens.
- 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 lean 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. Caffeine consumption interferes with hormone levels and also increases the loss of calcium. Try to limit alcohol consumption to one glass a day and caffeine to one cup a day.
- Eat the right type of protein. Protein is an essential part of any healthy diet, but eating too much animal-based protein—such as the levels recommended in many low-carb, high-protein diets—is particularly dangerous for women. Eating too much animal protein can cause calcium loss and lead to a decrease in bone density and osteoporosis. Instead of red meat and processed meat, such as hotdogs, bacon, and salami, opt for fish, skinless chicken and turkey, low-fat dairy, and plant-based protein sources, such as beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu, and soy products.
How much high-quality protein do women need?
Protein needs are based on weight rather than calorie intake. Adult women should eat at least 0.8g of lean 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
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.
You may think that they 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. The key is to choose the right kinds of carbohydrates.
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, and sugary foods.
- 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
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. 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, help you maintain a healthy weight and improve the look of your hair, skin, and nails.
- Monounsaturated fats are found in plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil, as well as avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
- Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Other sources include unheated sunflower, corn, soybean, flaxseed oils, and walnuts.
Saturated fat and trans fat—the “bad fats”—increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Saturated fats are found primarily in animal sources including red meat and whole milk dairy products.
- Trans fats are found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
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 goes a long way in making you feel full. Small amounts of good fats like nuts or seeds make great satisfying snacks.
- 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.
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 and magnesium needs are higher for people who eat the standard Western diet (high consumption of sugar, caffeine, meat, and alcohol and a relatively low consumption of leafy greens and whole grains).
- 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. Be smart about taking calcium supplements. 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.
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.
- Start your day with a high-fiber, whole grain cereal, or add wheat bran and fresh or dried fruit to your favorite breakfast cereal.
- Replace white rice, 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.
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.
- Avoid trans fats, refined sugar, and salt. Sugar worsens mood swings and salt worsens water retention and bloating.
- Cut out caffeine and alcohol. Both are known to worsen PMS symptoms, so avoid them during this time in your cycle.
- Limit red meat and egg yolks as they can cause inflammation. You may want to try sticking to vegetable proteins like soy and nuts, to see if it helps with your symptoms.
- Try cutting out dairy. Many women find relief from symptoms when dairy foods are eliminated from their diet. For some, improvements occur when they switch to hormone-free, organic dairy products.
- Add essential fatty acids to your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help with cramps. See if eating more fish or taking fish oil or flaxseed 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.
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
- Fat and protein are very important to your baby’s developing brain and nervous system. Stick to lean, high-quality sources of protein and healthy fats for weight control.
- 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 tuna 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 lean 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, 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.
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 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 soy sources such as soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and soy nuts.
More help for diet and nutrition
- Calcium and Your Bones: Calcium-Rich Foods and Supplements for Strong Bones
- Good Ways to Get Quality Protein: Making Protein Choices To Boost Energy and Improve Your Health
- Choosing Healthy Fats: Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3s
- The Mediterranean Diet: Myths, Facts, and Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
- Healthy Eating: Easy Tips for Planning a Healthy Diet and Sticking to It
- Women and Alcohol: The Hidden Risks of Drinking
- Healthy Weight Loss and Dieting Tips: How to Lose Weight and Keep It Off
- Emotional Eating: How to Recognize and Stop Emotional Eating
- High-Fiber Foods: Benefits, Sources, and Getting More Fiber in Your Diet
- Easy Ways to Start Exercising: Making Exercise a Fun Part of Your Everyday Life
Resources and references
Nutrition basics for women
Healthy Eating for Women – How to eat for women's special concerns. Includes tips for correcting iron deficiency, increasing bone density, supporting pregnancy, and controlling weight. (Nutritionwerks)
Nutrition: Women's Extra Needs – Guidelines for women’s changing nutritional needs during menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. (Better Health Channel)
Nutrition tips for strong bones
Calcium and Milk: What's Best for Your Bones and Health? – Learn about why calcium is important and the best food sources of calcium. (Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source)
Promoting Lifelong Bone Health – Guide to building strong bones throughout life and preventing osteoporosis. Includes calcium guidelines and other nutritional tips. (NutritionMD)
Health Concerns about Dairy Products – Detailed information on the problems with dairy consumption. (PCRM – Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine)
Diet and nutrition tips for PMS
Nutritional Factors in Menstrual Pain and Premenstrual Syndrome – Learn how a low-fat, vegetarian diet may bring relief from menstrual pain and PMS. (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)
Diet and nutrition tips for a healthy pregnancy
Your Healthy Diet During Pregnancy – Offers breakdowns of food groups with suggestions for food choices during pregnancy. (March of Dimes)
Pregnancy and Nutrition: Healthy Eating for Two – Learn about changing needs for energy and nutrition, specific dietary guidelines, and how to keep your body toxin-free during pregnancy. (NutritionMD)
Food-Borne Risks in Pregnancy – Details the different foods considered to be potentially dangerous during pregnancy, and explains why these foods may pose a threat. (March of Dimes)
Diet and nutrition tips for menopause and perimenopause
A Natural Approach to Menopause – Detailed information on ways to prevent or reduce menopause related symptoms. (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)
Menopause – Learn about the assessment and treatment of menopause, including nutritional interventions that may help relieve symptoms. (NutritionMD)
Diet and nutrition tips for teenage women
Healthy Eating: A Guide for Teens – Overview of good nutrition basics for teenage girls. This website also features articles on Calcium and Teens, Iron and Teens, and more. (Center for Young Women’s Health, Children’s Hospital Boston)