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Healthy Diet and Nutrition Tips for Women

Eating Right to Look and Feel Your Best at Every Stage of Life

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With our busy lives trying to balance the demands of family and work or school—and coping with media pressure to look and eat a certain way—it can be difficult for any woman or girl to maintain a healthy diet. But eating a balanced, nutritious diet is especially important for women. Not only can the right food support your mood, boost your energy, and help you maintain a healthy weight, it can also be a huge support through the different stages in a woman’s life. Healthy food can help reduce PMS, boost fertility, make pregnancy and nursing easier, ease symptoms of menopause, and keep your bones strong. Whatever your age or situation, committing to a healthy, nutritious diet will help you look and feel your best and get the most out of life.

What you can do

  1. Protect your bones by understanding your lifelong need for calcium
  2. Learn about the food sources that support your special need for iron
  3. Discover the role vitamin B9 plays in pregnancy
  4. Learn about food sources that can ease PMS
  5. Learn why you can't rely on supplements to fulfill your nutritional needs
  6. Learn more by reading the related articles

How do women's nutritional needs differ from men's?

As children, boys’ and girls’ dietary needs are largely similar. But when puberty begins, women start to develop unique nutritional requirements. And as we age and our bodies go through more physical and hormonal changes, so our nutritional needs continue to evolve, making it important that our diets evolve to meet these changing needs.

While women tend to need fewer calories than men, our requirements for certain vitamins and minerals are much higher. Hormonal changes associated with menstruation, child-bearing, and menopause mean that women have a higher risk of anemia, weakened bones and osteoporosis, requiring a higher intake of nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin B9 (folate).

Why many women fall short of the nutritional guidelines

As women, many of us are prone to neglecting our own dietary needs. You may feel you’re too busy to eat right, used to putting the needs of your family first, or trying to adhere to an extreme diet that leaves you short on vital nutrients and feeling cranky, hungry, and low on energy. Women’s specific needs are often neglected by dietary research, too. Studies tend to rely on male subjects whose hormone levels are more stable and predictable, thus sometimes making the results irrelevant or even misleading to women’s needs. All this can add up to serious shortfalls in your daily nutrition.

While what works best for one woman may not always be the best choice for another, the important thing is to build your dietary choices around your vital nutritional needs. Whether you’re looking to improve your energy and mood, combat stress or PMS, boost fertility, enjoy a healthy pregnancy, or ease the symptoms of menopause, these nutrition tips can help you to stay healthy and vibrant throughout your ever-changing life.

Why supplements alone aren't enough

In the past, women have often tried to make up deficits in their diet though the use of vitamins and supplements. However, while vitamin and mineral supplements can be a useful safeguard against occasional nutrient shortfalls, they can’t compensate for an unbalanced or unhealthy diet. To ensure you get all the nutrients you need from the food you eat, try to aim for a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, quality protein, healthy fats, and low in processed, fried, and sugary foods. See Dietary Supplements: The Smart and Safe Use of Vitamins and Supplements

Calcium for strong bones throughout life

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.

The importance of exercise for bone health

In addition to diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors can also play an important role in bone health. Smoking and drinking too much alcohol can increase your chances of developing osteoporosis, while weight-bearing exercise (such as walking, dancing, yoga, or lifting weights) can lower your risk and is vital for a woman’s healthy bones at any age. Strength or resistance training—using machines, free weights, elastic bands, or your own body weight—can be especially effective in helping to prevent loss of bone mass as you age. See How to Start Exercising and Stick to It

How much calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D do you need?

Calcium: For adult women aged 19-50, the USDA recommended daily allowance is 1,000 mg/day. For women over 50, the recommended daily allowance is 1,200 mg/day. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, oatmeal and other grains, tofu, cabbage, summer squash, green beans, garlic, and sea vegetables. Your body cannot take in more than 500 mg at any one time and there's no benefit to exceeding the recommended daily amount.

Magnesium: Magnesium increases calcium absorption form the blood into the bone. In fact, your body can’t utilize calcium without it. The USDA recommended daily allowance for magnesium is 320 to 400 mg/day. Good sources include leafy green vegetables, summer squash, broccoli, halibut, cucumber, green beans, celery, and a variety of seeds.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is also crucial to the proper metabolism of calcium. Aim for 600 IU (international units) daily. You can get Vitamin D from about half an hour of direct sunlight, and from foods such as salmon, shrimp, vitamin-D fortified milk, cod, and eggs.

Good food sources of calcium

Food

Milligrams (mg) per serving

Yogurt, plain, low fat, 8 ounces

415

Mozzarella, part skim, 1.5 ounces

Cheddar cheese, 1.5 ounces

Cottage cheese, (1% milk fat), 8 ounces

Cheese, cream, regular, 1 tablespoon

333

307

138

14

Milk, nonfat, 8 ounces

Milk, reduced-fat (2% milk fat), 8 ounces

Milk, whole (3.25% milk fat), 8 ounces

Soymilk, calcium-fortifed, 8 ounces

299

293

276

299

Ready-to-eat cereal, calcium-fortified, 1 cup

100-1,000

Sardines, canned in oil, with bones, 3 ounces

Salmon, pink, canned, solids with bone, 3 ounces

325

181

Tofu, firm, made with calcium sulfate, 1/2 cup

Tofu, soft, made with calcium sulfate, 1/2 cup

253

138

Turnip greens, fresh, boiled, 1/2 cup

Kale, raw, chopped, 1 cup

Kale, fresh, cooked, 1 cup

Chinese cabbage, bok choy, raw, shredded, 1 cup

Broccoli, raw, 1/2 cup

99

100

94

74

21

Source: National Institutes of Health

Should you avoid dairy because of its saturated fat content?

As the table above shows, some of the best sources of calcium are dairy products. However, dairy products such as whole milk, cheese, and yogurt also tend to contain high levels of saturated fat. There’s an ongoing debate in the nutrition world about the pros and cons of saturated fat. Many prominent health organizations maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, so recommend opting for no- or low-fat dairy products. The downside of these reduced fat dairy products is that they often contain lots of added sugar—and this added sugar, other nutrition experts argue, is much more damaging to your health than saturated fat. In fact, some experts believe that saturated fat from sources such as whole milk dairy products—especially organic dairy—can have a positive effect on overall health, and even help control your weight.

Iron: why you may not be getting enough

Iron helps to create the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. It’s also important to maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails. Due to the amount of blood lost during menstruation, women of childbearing age need more than twice the amount of iron that men do—even more during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, many of us aren’t getting nearly enough iron in our diets, making iron deficiency anemia the most common deficiency in women.

Anemia can deplete your energy, leaving you feeling weak, exhausted, and out of breath after even minimal physical activity. Iron deficiency can also impact your mood, causing depression-like symptoms such as irritability and difficulty concentrating. While a simple blood test can tell your doctor if you have an iron deficiency, if you’re feeling tired and cranky all the time, it’s a good idea to examine the amount of iron in your diet.

How much iron do you need?

For adolescent women aged 14-18, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) recommended daily amount is 15 mg (27 mg if pregnant, 10 mg if lactating). For adult women aged 19-50, the FNB recommends 18 mg/day (27 mg if pregnant, 9 mg if lactating). For women 51+ years old, the recommended daily amount is 8 mg.

Part of the reason why so many women fail to get the amount of iron they need is because one of the best sources of iron is red meat (especially liver) which also contains high levels of saturated fat that women have long been told to avoid. While leafy green vegetables and beans are also good sources of iron—and don’t contain high levels saturated fat—the iron from plant foods is different to the iron from animal sources, and not absorbed as well by the body. Other foods rich in iron include poultry, seafood, dried fruit such as raisins and apricots, and iron-fortified cereals, breads, and pastas.

Good sources of iron
Food Milligrams (mg) per serving

Breakfast cereals, fortified with 100% iron, 1 serving

Chocolate, dark, 45%-69% cacao solids, 3 ounces

18

7

Oysters, eastern, cooked with moist heat, 3 ounces

Sardines, with bone, 3 ounces

Tuna, light, canned in water, 3 ounces

8

2

1

Beef liver, pan fried, 3 ounces

Beef, braised bottom round, 3 ounces

Chicken, roasted, meat and skin, 3 ounces

Turkey, roasted, breast meat and skin, 3 ounces

5

2

1

1

White beans, canned, 1 cup

Lentils, boiled and drained, 1/2 cup

Kidney beans, canned, 1/2 cup

Chickpeas, boiled and drained, 1/2 cup

8

3

2

2

Spinach, boiled and drained, 1/2 cup

Tomatoes, canned, stewed, 1/2 cup

Broccoli, boiled and drained, 1/2 cup

Green peas, boiled, 1/2 cup

Raisins, seedless, 1/4 cup

3

2

1

1

1

Tofu, firm, 1/2 cup

Potato, medium baked, including skin

Cashew nuts, oil roasted, 1 ounce (18 nuts)

Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice

Egg, large, hard boiled

3

2

2

1

1

Source: National Institutes of Health

The importance of folate (vitamin B9) for women of child-bearing age

Folate or vitamin B9 (also known as folic acid when used in fortified foods or taken as a supplement) is another nutrient that many women don’t get enough of in their diets. Folate can greatly reduce the chance of neurological birth defects when taken before conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Folate can also lower a woman’s risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, so even if you’re not planning on getting pregnant (and many pregnancies are unplanned), it’s an essential nutrient for every woman of childbearing age. And in later life during menopause, folate can help your body manufacture estrogen.

Not getting enough folate in your diet can also impact your mood, leaving you feeling irritable and fatigued, affecting your concentration, and making you more susceptible to depression and headaches.

Nutrition tips to boost fertility

If you are planning a pregnancy, as well as getting sufficient folate in your diet, consider:

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine, as they are known to decrease fertility.
  • Eating organic foods and grass-fed or free-range meat and eggs, in order to limit pollutants and pesticides that may interfere with fertility.
  • Taking a prenatal supplement. The most important supplements for fertility are folic acid, zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and vitamin C.
  • Not overlooking 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.

How much folate do you need?

The U.S. FDA recommends that all women and teen girls who could become pregnant consume 400 mcg (micrograms) of folate or folic acid daily. Women who are pregnant should take 600 mcg, and those breastfeeding 500 mcg

Good sources include leafy green vegetables, fruit and fruit juice, nuts, beans and peas. Folic acid is also added to enrich many grain-based products such as cereals, bread, and pasta.

Good food sources of folate and folic acid
Food Micrograms (mcg) per serving

Beef liver, braised, 3 ounces

Ground beef, 85% lean, cooked, 3 ounces

Chicken breast, roasted, 1/2 breast

215

7

3

Spinach, boiled, 1/2 cup

Asparagus, boiled, 4 spears

Brussles sprouts, frozen, boiled, 1/2 cup

Lettuce, romaine, shredded, 1 cup

Broccoli, chopped, frozen, cooked, 1/2 cup

Mustard greens, chopped, frozen, boiled, 1/2 cup

131

89

78

64

52

52

Black-eyed peas (cowpeas), boiled, 1/2 cup

Green peas, frozen, boiled, 1/2 cup

Kidney beans, canned, 1/2 cup

105

47

46

Breakfast cereals, fortified with 25% of the DV

Spaghetti, cooked, enriched, 1/2 cup

Bread, white, 1 slice

Yeast, baker's, 1/4 teaspoon

100

83

43

23

Tomato juice, canned, 3/4 cup

Orange juice, 2/4 cup

Orange, fresh, 1 small

Papaya, raw, cubed, 1/2 cup

Banana, 1 medium

36

35

23

27

24

Crab, Dungeness, 3 ounces

Fish, halibut, cooked, 3 ounces

36

12

Egg, whole, hard-boiled, 1 large

Milk, 1% fat, 1 cup

22

12

Source: National Institutes of Health

Eating to ease the symptoms of PMS

Experiencing bloating, cramping, and fatigue during the week or so before your period is often due to fluctuating hormones. Your diet can play an important role in alleviating these and other symptoms of PMS.

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.

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, deep fried foods, and sugar. All are inflammatory, which can trigger PMS symptoms.

Battle bloat by cutting out salt. If you tend to retain water and experiencing bloating, avoiding salty snacks, frozen dinners, and processed foods can make a big difference.

Add essential fatty acids to ease cramps. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help with cramps. See if eating more fish or flaxseed eases your PMS symptoms.

Watch out for food sensitivities. PMS is a common symptom of food sensitivities. Common culprits include dairy and wheat. Try cutting out the suspected food and see if it makes a difference in your symptoms.

Cut out caffeine and alcohol. Both worsen PMS symptoms, so avoid them during this time in your cycle.

Consider vitamin supplements. For some women, taking a daily multivitamin or supplementing with magnesium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E may help relieve cramps. But, again, supplements are not a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet. It’s always better to get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs from the food you eat.

Nutrition for pregnant or breastfeeding women

You only need about 300 extra calories per day to 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 tips for healthy pregnancy

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the neurological and early visual development of your baby and for making breast milk after birth. Aim for two weekly servings of cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, or anchovies. Sardines are widely considered the safest and most sustainable fish to eat, while seaweed is a rich vegetarian source of Omega-3s.

High quality protein is also important to your baby's developing brain and nervous system. Opt for protein from fish, poultry, dairy, and plant-based protein sources as well as 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.

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 contain high levels of mercury.

Nutrition tips for healthy breastfeeding

Keep your caloric consumption a littler higher to help your body maintain a steady milk supply.

Emphasize healthy sources of protein and calcium, which are higher in demand during lactation. Nursing women need about 20 grams more high-quality protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production.

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 caffiene 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.

Eating to ease the symptoms of 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 common symptoms.

Boost calcium intake (along with vitamin D and magnesium) to support bone health and prevent osteoporosis.

Limit wine, sugar, white flour products, and coffee to ease hot flashes.

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 and manage hot flashes. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed to your daily diet. Try sprinkling it on soups, salads, or main dishes.

Eat 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.

Related HelpGuide articles

Resources and references

Healthy diet basics for women

Nutrition: Women's Extra Needs – Guidelines for women’s changing nutritional needs during menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause. (Better Health Channel)

Eating 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)

Calcium and Vitamin D: Important at Every Age – The role of calcium in bone health and good food sources of calcium. (National Institutes of Health)

Women's iron needs

Iron Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet – Recommended intakes and good sources of iron. (National Institutes of Health)

Iron Deficiency Anemia – Symptoms and causes of iron deficiency anemia. (Mayo Clinic)

Folate (vitamin B9

Folate Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet – Outlines the recommended intakes of folate as well as good food sources. (National Institutes of Health)

Folate for pregnant women – Outlines the importance of folate before and during pregnancy and how to get more in your diet. (Better Health Channel)

Diet tips for PMS

Using Foods Against Menstrual Pain – Learn how the right diet may bring relief from menstrual pain and PMS. (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

Healthy diet tips for a healthy pregnancy

Eating Healthy 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)

Foods to avoid or limit during 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 tips for menopause and perimenopause

Menopause – Learn about the assessment and treatment of menopause, including nutritional interventions that may help relieve symptoms. (NutritionMD)

Healthy diet 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, Iron, and more. (Center for Young Women’s Health, Children’s Hospital Boston)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Lawrence Robinson. Last updated: December 2016.