You likely know the principles of good nutrition: Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein; avoid excessive fats and sugars. But women also have particular nutritional needs that fluctuate as they undergo major hormonal and body changes over the course of their lifetimes. We asked nutrition experts how women should eat at every age for optimum health.
Aim for a healthy weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is good for ovulation and can make getting pregnant easier. “Being either underweight or overweight can play havoc on some of the hormones and the way a woman’s body normally functions,” says Kimberly Tessmer, registered dietitian and author of Tell Me What to Eat if I’m Trying to Conceive.
Get your folate. This B vitamin plays a crucial role in fetal development, and studies have shown that it’s best if a woman already has high levels in her body before she becomes pregnant. You can accumulate folate by eating leafy greens, some citrus fruits, whole grains and fortified cereals. Folic acid is also typically found in multivitamins marketed to women.
Up your omegas. Omega-3 fatty acids—especially DHA, which is found in cold-water fish like salmon, tuna and sardines—are also believed to improve fertility and are necessary for a fetus’ brain and eye development.
Don’t forget the iron. Even if you don’t plan to get pregnant, it’s crucial during the time you’re pre-menopausal—i.e. still having a monthly period—that you get enough iron. “You lose a lot in your monthly menstrual cycle, so you need to make sure you have good iron stores,” Tessmer says.
Beef up your bones. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking only older women need to increase their calcium intake. In fact, women should consider this as early as their 20s and 30s.
“90 percent of calcium that occurs naturally in the body comes by the time you graduate high school or college,” says Dr. Mache Seibel, co-author of Eat to Defeat Menopause and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “For the rest of your life, you need to slow the rate of bone loss, and the way you do that is by taking calcium.”
Stock up on: Beans, greens, oranges, fish
Avoid: Processed soy products, excess red meat
Don’t eat for two. Bad news: The old saying “eating for two” is not a good guideline for a pregnancy diet. “You need a slight increase in calories but not double,” Tessmer says. “It’s most important that you eat a well-balanced diet, getting in all the food groups.”
Talk to your doc if you’re not a meat eater. Vegetarians and vegans can maintain a healthy pregnancy, but should check in with their doctors to see if they need any nutritional supplements.
Get your vitamins. Don’t assume that because you’re not having a period, iron is no longer a concern—during pregnancy, your blood volume increases and you need more iron. Getting enough vitamin C will also improve your body’s iron absorption.
Stock up on: Lowfat dairy, spinach, fortified cereals or juice
Avoid: Liver, fish that’s high in mercury
Know the symptoms. Women can experience the symptoms we think of as associated with menopause—hot flashes, insomnia, headaches, mood swings—up to 10 years before they actually go through “the change.” “A lot of women at this time notice the changes that are going on around them—their body shape, gaining weight, feeling tired, interrupted sleep,” says Karen Giblin, founder of the Red Hot Mamas and co-author of Eat to Defeat Menopause. “But they may not realize that their diet plays a key role, and changing it can be beneficial for some of their symptoms.”
Focus on phytoestrogens. Since menopause symptoms are caused by changing hormones, foods rich in phytoestrogens—a plant-based substance similar to estrogen—can provide some relief. Tofu, soy-based dairy alternatives and flax seed all contain phytoestrogens.
Limit hot flash triggers. Caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods and large meals can trigger hot flashes, so avoiding or cutting way back on these things can help you keep your cool.
B happy. If mood swings are making you crazy, up your intake of vitamin B, a natural mood stabilizer. Vitamin B powerhouses include dark leafy greens and lean poultry. (The tryptophan in turkey can also ease insomnia.)
Stock up on: Tofu, milk, turkey
Avoid: Caffeine, spicy foods, excess sugar
Watch belly fat. Weight control is crucial in the post-childbearing years, because gaining weight is typical in and after menopause, even if women continue the same healthy eating and exercise routine that has helped them maintain their weight for years. “We tend to get what I call the ‘swelly belly,’ and gain weight in the upper arms,” Giblin says. “Some of us may gain up to 5 pounds, and lose a lot of muscle mass.” Cutting back on sugar can keep belly fat in check, and Seibel suggests exploring the concept of mindful eating if you haven’t already.
Protect your bones. Loading up on vitamin D as well as calcium can help. “Not a week goes by that I don’t find a patient with low vitamin D,” Seibel says. “It helps get the calcium from your bloodstream into your bones. It can affect mood and muscle strength and deficiency has been associated with breast cancer and heart disease.”
We get most of our vitamin D through sun exposure, but supplements and fortified foods can help you get what you need.
Stock up on: Lowfat cheese, fortified foods
Avoid: Sodas, foods high in sodium