Omega-3 fatty acids — essential to health and happiness, reviewed by Dr. Mary James, MD. From conception to old age, every cell in our bodies needs omega-3’s. Learn how omega-3 fatty acids benefit every body system — from the brain to the heart, breast, bones, colon, skin and more, this is one nutrient that can make all the difference to our health, our happiness, and — perhaps best of all — our longevity.
Focus on the long term. Diets fail when people fall back into poor eating habits; maintaining weight loss over the long term is exceedingly difficult. Most people regain the weight they've lost. In fact, some studies indicate that 90 to 95 percent of all dieters regain some or all of the weight originally lost within five years. Your program should include plans for ongoing weight maintenance, involving diet, exercise and a behavioral component. While there are some physical reasons for obesity, there are also behavioral reasons for excessive eating. For example, many women use food as a source of comfort (perhaps to deal with stress). For these women, a weight loss program with a behavioral component will offer alternatives to replace food in this role.
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.
To help you learn how to eat healthfully, start with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) dietary guidelines system, which you can find at http://www.mypyramid.gov. The MyPyramid system, which looks somewhat like the familiar food pyramid of old, offers guidance based on individual needs and replaces "serving" recommendations with actual amounts of food. It also emphasizes the importance of balancing nutritious (and tasty!) food choices from all food groups every day with daily physical activity.
Some fat is an important part of your diet; fat is part of every cell. It maintains skin and hair; stores and transports fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; keeps you warm; and protects your internal organs. It even helps your mental processes—not surprising given that fat comprises about 60 percent of your brain. But many women consume too much fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you keep your total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of your total calories.
If you count calories, count fat calories, too. Food labels indicate how many calories come from fat, both in actual grams and in percentages. This helps you assess the percentage of fat in your diet. If the total number of fat calories is 30 percent or more of the total calories you consume in a day, you probably need to cut back. But don't be misled by terms like "lower fat." Ask yourself "lower than what?" and look at the overall percentage of fat calories in the food.
Low-fat diets also can help you lose weight.16 But the amount of weight lost is usually small. You can lose weight and lower your risk for heart disease and stroke if you follow an overall healthy pattern of eating that includes more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans that are high in fiber, nuts, low-fat dairy and fish, in addition to staying away from trans fat and saturated fat.
Not everyone who is underweight suffers from an eating disorder, but anorexia and bulimia are serious health problems in this country; an estimated 500,000 women suffer from anorexia, and 1 to 2 million women struggle with bulimia. Women with anorexia nervosa starve themselves and/or exercise excessively, losing anywhere from 15 percent to 60 percent of their normal body weight. Some die. Women with bulimia nervosa binge on large quantities of food—up to 20,000 calories at one time—and then try to get rid of the excess calories. Some purge by inducing vomiting, abusing laxatives and diuretics or by taking enemas. Others fast or exercise to extremes.
Men who choose to drink and can do so responsibly may benefit from one to two drinks a day, counting 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of spirits as one drink. But women face an extra risk: Even low doses of alcohol can raise their risk of breast cancer. So women who choose to drink might be wise to limit themselves to half as much as men.
It's a cliché, to be sure, but a balanced diet is the key to good nutrition and good health. Following that diet, however, isn't always that easy. One challenge is that women often feel too busy to eat healthfully, and it's often easier to pick up fast food than to prepare a healthy meal at home. But fast food is usually high in fat and calories and low in other nutrients, which can seriously affect your health. At the other extreme, a multimillion dollar industry is focused on telling women that being fit means being thin and that dieting is part of good nutrition.
A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight and one 30 or above is considered obese. For an idea of what this means, a 5-foot 5-inch woman who weighs 150 pounds is overweight with a BMI of 25. At 180 pounds, she would be considered obese, with a BMI of 30. Keep in mind that the tables aren't always accurate, especially if you have a high muscle mass; are pregnant, nursing, frail or elderly; or if you are a teenager (i.e., still growing).