Women have special nutritional needs due to hormonal changes that occur with menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause, all of which alter the recommended daily intake of nutrients.
Iron-deficiency anemia is a very common nutritional disorder following the beginning of the menstrual cycle, is also common among females with poor diets or very low body weight. Good sources of iron include red meat, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, and fortified breads and cereals.
Nutrition throughout a pregnancy, has a major impact on pregnancy outcome. Traditionally, caloric requirements during pregnancy have been estimated to be around an additional 300 calories per day. However, this must be adjusted for physical activity and pre-pregnancy weight.
Folic acid, a B vitamin, has been shown to prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord known as neural tube defects (NTDs). The most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. Folic acid is therefore needed both in preconception and early pregnancy. Good sources of folic acid include dark green leafy vegetables, oranges and orange juice, dried beans and peas, and fortified breads and cereals.
Adequate calcium intake during pregnancy is also important, since calcium is drawn from the mother. Before becoming pregnant, a woman should discuss folic acid or calcium supplementation, as well as multivitamin supplementation with a physician and dietitian.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy may trigger a condition called gestational diabetes characterized by high levels of sugar in the blood. Changes in diet and exercise are often sufficient to keep blood sugar levels in the normal range. For most women, the condition goes away after the birth of the baby. Women who have gestational diabetes are more likely to develop type II diabetes later in life.
The ideal diet of a breastfeeding woman is comprised of healthy and nutritious foods from all food groups. Healthy fats such as fatty fish and avocados should be incorporated daily. Breastfeeding women should make sure to eat foods that contain lots of calcium, such as dairy products, broccoli, and beans, and make sure they eat plenty of iron-rich foods like lean red meat, fish and poultry. In order to compensate for the energy, women expend breastfeeding their babies, breastfeeding mothers should add 300-500 extra nutritious calories to their diet each day and drink extra fluids. Breastfeeding mothers should also continue to take a prenatal vitamin.
Many women seek medical help for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). While nutrition advice often varies, there is insufficient scientific evidence that any diet modifications will prevent or relieve PMS symptoms. A combination of good nutrition, exercise, and stress management may be the best way to relieve the symptoms of PMS.
During menopause, a woman’s metabolism slows down and weight gain can occur. The accumulation of body fat around the abdomen also increases. Exercise and careful food choices can minimize both of these occurrences. Women over age forty-five who are overweight, physically inactive, and have a family history of diabetes are more likely to develop type II diabetes. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a varied and balanced diet, and engaging in an active lifestyle can reduce the risk of developing type II diabetes.
Women are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis than their age men are. Osteoporosis is an irreversible disease in which the bones become porous and break easily. There are many factors that contribute to this disease, including genetics, diet, hormones, age, and lifestyle factors. The disease usually has no symptoms until a fracture occurs. Diets low in calcium, vitamin D, or magnesium may increase the chance of developing osteoporosis. Good nutrition and weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, hiking, or climbing stairs, helps to build strong bones. Good sources of calcium include dairy products (cheese, yogurt, milk), canned fish with bones (salmon and sardines), dark green leafy vegetables, and calcium-fortified foods (orange juice, bread, and cereals).
Breast cancer is developed more likely in obese, sedentary women, and dietary factors may possibly play a role in its development. Diets that include adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods may protect against breast cancer. Excessive alcohol consumption does appear to raise the risk of breast cancer in women.
The risk of developing heart disease begins to rise once a woman reaches menopause, and it increases rapidly after age sixty-five. After menopause, women with hypertension outnumber men with the condition. Weight control, an active lifestyle, a diet low in salt and fat, and with plenty of fruits and vegetables may help to prevent hypertension.
Good nutrition is the cornerstone of good health for a woman, but the many phases of a woman’s life require nutritional adjustments. Learning and following dietary recommendations, and making the appropriate nutritional adjustments, can improve a woman’s quality of life and reduce the risk of chronic disease.