Poor nutrition may be one of the easiest conditions to self-diagnose. Look at the food pyramid and the suggested servings. Look at your diet. Are you getting the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables? Enough calcium? Read the labels and compare what you eat to what you need. You may discover that even if your weight is ideal, you are not getting enough nutrition.
After menopause. Lower levels of estrogen after menopause raise your risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and osteoporosis, a condition that causes your bones to become weak and break easily. What you eat also affects these chronic diseases. Talk to your doctor about healthy eating plans and whether you need more calcium and vitamin D to protect your bones. Read more about how very low estrogen levels affect your health in our Menopause section. Most women also need fewer calories as they age, because of less muscle and less physical activity. Find out how many calories you need based on your level of activity.
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.
Calcium: Although some bone loss is inevitable with age, women can slow the process by getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Women between the ages of 50 and 70 need 1200 mg of calcium and 600 IU of Vitamin D a day. Women older than 70 require 1200 mg of calcium and 800 IU of Vitamin D a day. Because the skin becomes less efficient at converting sunlight to vitamin D as we age, older women may need more vitamin D in the form of supplements. Talk to your doctor.
Folic acid: This form of B vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects, especially spina bifida and anencephaly. These defects can be devastating and fatal. Many foods are now fortified with folic acid. Most women get enough as part of their diet through foods such as leafy greens, a rich source of folic acid. However, some doctors recommend that women take a pregnancy supplement that includes folic acid, just to make sure they are getting the recommended 400 to 800 micrograms.
Most experts recommend 1,300 mg of calcium a day for girls aged 9 through 19. Natural sources of calcium, such as low-fat dairy products, are the smartest choice, because they also contain vitamin D and protein, both required for calcium absorption. Milk, yogurt, and cheese contribute most of the calcium in our diets. Some vegetables are also good sources, including broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage. Many foods are supplemented with calcium, including some brands of orange juice and tofu. The daily intake for Vitamin D is 600 IU per day for most children and healthy adults.
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).
Also limit the amount of cholesterol you consume. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in every cell of the body. It helps digest some fats, strengthen cell membranes and make hormones. But too much cholesterol can be dangerous: When blood cholesterol reaches high levels, it can build up on artery walls, increasing the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. Although dietary cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, the greater risk comes from a diet high in saturated and trans fats.
Having the proper footwear is essential for any workout, and for winter runs, that means sneaks with EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), says Polly de Mille, an exercise physiologist who oversees New York Road Runner's Learning Series for first-time New York City Marathon runners. “Polyurethane tends to get really stiff and cold in the winter, which could increase your risk of injury.” Another important feature is a waterproof and windproof upper: Look for shoes made with Gortex, or wrap your mesh uppers in duct tape to keep feet dry and warm.
Young adults. Teen girls and young women usually need more calories than when they were younger, to support their growing and developing bodies. After about age 25, a woman’s resting metabolism (the number of calories her body needs to sustain itself at rest) goes down. To maintain a healthy weight after age 25, women need to gradually reduce their calories and increase their physical activity.
Before you convince yourself that you’re too busy to mediate, consider this: “Adding mediation to your daily fitness routine can be a crucial part of body transformation,” says Mark Fisher, founder of Mark Fisher Fitness in NYC. Find five to 10 minutes once or twice a day to focus on your breath, he suggests. “Taking the time to do this can help your body and brain de-stress and recover better from all your hard work at the gym and the office.”
If you usually head to the gym after work, take heed: Mental exhaustion can make you feel physically exhausted, even when you have plenty of energy, reports a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study. When people played a brain-draining computer game before exercising, they reported a subsequent workout as being harder, yet their muscles showed the same activity as they did doing the same workout after an easy mental game. So if you think you can’t eke out those last 10 minutes on the rowing machine, remember: You can! [Tweet this motivation!]
In the past, women have often tried to make up deficits in their diet though the use of vitamins and supplements. However, while 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.