Women have many unique health concerns — menstrual cycles, pregnancy, birth control, menopause — and that's just the beginning. A number of health issues affect only women and others are more common in women. What's more, men and women may have the same condition, but different symptoms. Many diseases affect women differently and may even require distinct treatment.
SOURCES: Elaine Turner, PhD, RD, associate professor, department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida, Gainesville. Sharon B. Spalding, MEd, CSCS, professor, physical education and health; and associate director, Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, Mary Baldwin College Staunton, Va. American Dietetic Association web site. Institute of Medicine at the National Academies web site.
The new guidelines encourage eating more nutrient-dense food and beverages. Many of us consume too many calories from solid fats, added sugar and refined grains. The guidelines promote a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds.
Getting enough water also is important. Many experts recommend at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily—more if you exercise frequently or are exposed to extremes of heat and cold. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize drinking more water and other calorie-free beverages, along with fat-free or low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juices, instead of calorie-packed regular sodas.
During adolescence and early adulthood, women need to consume foods rich in calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass. This will reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, a progressive condition where there is a loss of bone that leaves those affected more susceptible to fractures. Women also need an adequate iron intake because they lose iron through menstruation. Women also need an adequate intake of calories to support energy and nutritional needs in order for the body to function properly. The amount of calories that an individual needs varies for each person and is based on age, gender and activity level. As a general recommendation, women between 23 and 50 years of age generally need between 1,700 and 2,200 calories per day to maintain their current energy needs and body weight. Older women generally require fewer calories to support and sustain energy needs. Consuming fewer than 1,500 calories per day, even in attempts to lose weight, can put women at nutritional risk and can result in malnutrition and poor health. For more information on how to calculate one’s nutritional needs, go to www.choosemyplate.gov and insert your personal information. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is another reference or guide to assist you in learning to eat a balanced and nutritious diet for good health.
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Consult your health care professional. Women of childbearing age may want to consider taking folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of having a pregnancy affected with neural tube defects. Many women and teenage girls don't get enough calcium or vitamin D, both of which are critical to healthy bones and avoiding osteoporosis. Some people with diabetes appear to benefit from chromium. Vegetarians, especially vegans, may want to consider supplements to obtain nutrients they aren't getting from animal products.
Actually, more people suffer from food intolerances, which don't involve the immune system. However, food intolerance symptoms—such as intestinal distress—may mimic those of a food allergy. If you have a food intolerance, talk to a nutritionist about diagnosis and treatment; if you have food allergies, you need to see an allergist. Whether you have food allergies or intolerance, you will need to develop a diet that fits your needs and avoids foods that trigger a reaction.
For healthy bones and teeth, women need to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods every day. Calcium keeps bones strong and helps to reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease in which the bones become weak and break easily. Some calcium-rich foods include low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese, sardines, tofu (if made with calcium sulfate) and calcium-fortified foods including juices and cereals. Adequate amounts of vitamin D also are important, and the need for both calcium and vitamin D increases as women get older. Good sources of vitamin D include fatty fish, such as salmon, eggs and fortified foods and beverages, such as some yogurts and juices.
Not getting enough fiber can lead to constipation and can raise your risk for other health problems. Part of healthy eating is choosing fiber-rich foods, including beans, berries, and dark green leafy vegetables, every day. Fiber helps lower your risk for diseases that affect many women, such as heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and colon cancer. Fiber also helps you feel full, so it can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
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