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.
Much of the sugar we eat is added to other foods, such as regular soft drinks, fruit drinks, puddings, ice cream and baked goods, to name just a few. Soft drinks and other sugary beverages are the No. 1 offenders in American diets. A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 8 teaspoons of sugar, exceeding the daily maximum amount recommended for women.
Sugar is a source of calories, not nutrients. Consuming too much sugar can lead to weight gain and tooth decay. Contrary to what many people think, there is no evidence linking high-sugar diets to hyperactivity or diabetes. However, high-fructose corn syrup, found in most processed foods, is linked with obesity, and obesity increases your risk for developing diabetes and other conditions.
Women who have very low levels of sunlight exposure or have naturally very dark skin are at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Those affected may include women who cover most of their body when outdoors, shift workers, those who are unable to regularly get out of their house or women in residential care. Women who have certain medical conditions or are on some medications may also be affected.
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.
If you thought texting changed your love life, imagine what it could do for your waistline. When people received motivational text messages promoting exercise and healthy behaviors twice a week (i.e., “Keep in the fridge a Ziploc with washed and precut vegetables 4 quick snack. Add 1 string cheese 4 proteins”), they lost an average of about 3 percent of their body weight in 12 weeks. Participants in the Virginia Commonwealth University study also showed an improvement in eating behaviors, exercise, and nutrition self-efficacy, and reported that the texts helped them adopt these new habits. Find health-minded friends and message each other reminders, or program your phone to send yourself healthy eating tips.
If you lose weight suddenly or for unknown reasons, talk to your health care professional immediately. Unexplained weight loss may indicate a serious health condition. And even if it doesn't, simply being underweight is linked to menstrual irregularity, menstrual cessation (and sometimes, as a result, dental problems, such as erosion of the enamel and osteoporosis) and a higher risk of early death.
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The best training tool you're not using: a jump rope. “It may seem a little juvenile until you think of all the hot-bodied boxing pros who jump rope every single day,” says Landon LaRue, a CrossFit level-one trainer at Reebok CrossFit LAB in L.A. Not only is it inexpensive, portable, and easy to use almost anywhere, you’ll burn about 200 calories in 20 minutes and boost your cardiovascular health while toning, he adds.
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.
Even if you are the most independent exerciser around, give a group fitness class a shot at least once a week—you may find that you enjoy it more than sweating solo. “Happiness and health are shared through social connectedness and closeness,” says Greg Chertok, director of sport psychology at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in New Jersey. “Geography and proximity are predictors of how contagious emotions can be, and this may translate into an athletic environment too.” Sign up for Bikram, CrossFit, spin, or Zumba, and you could find yourself—gasp!—smiling at the gym thanks to your classmates.
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!]
According to the American Heart Association, it's better to eat more complex carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits and whole grains) than simple carbohydrates found in sugars. Complex carbohydrates add more fiber, vitamins and minerals to the diet than foods high in refined sugars and flour. Foods high in complex carbohydrates are usually low in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol.
Low-fat dairy products are excellent sources of calcium. Other good sources of calcium include salmon, tofu (soybean curd), certain vegetables (broccoli), legumes (peas and beans), calcium-enriched grain products, lime-processed tortillas, seeds and nuts. If you do not regularly consume adequate food sources of calcium, a calcium supplement can be considered to reach the recommended amount. The current recommendations for women for calcium are for a minimum of 1,200 mg per day.
As the table above shows, some of the best sources of calcium are dairy products. However, dairy products such as whole milk, cheese, and yogurt also tend to contain high levels of saturated fat. The USDA recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of your daily calories, meaning you can enjoy whole milk dairy in moderation and opt for no- or low-fat dairy products when possible. Just be aware that reduced fat dairy products often contain lots of added sugar, which can have negative effects on both your health and waistline.
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.
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.
The tiny gender differences in minerals other than calcium and iron depend on body size. But while the dietary requirements for selenium fit this rule, men may benefit from supplements of about 200 micrograms a day, a level about four times above the RDA. That's because both a clinical trial and an observational study suggest that selenium may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. It's far from proven, but it's something for men to consider.
Calcium may even be harmful for men, at least in large amounts. The worry is prostate cancer, and two Harvard studies have raised the alarm. In 1998, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study found that a high consumption of calcium from food or supplements was linked to an increased risk of advanced prostate cancer. The risk was greatest in men who got more than 2,000 mg a day. More recently, the U.S. Physicians' Health Study reported that a high consumption of calcium from dairy products appeared to increase a man's risk of prostate cancer by up to 37%. A study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle also found a link between calcium and advanced prostate cancer.
Native to East Asia, soybeans have been a major source of protein for people in Asia for more than 5,000 years. Soybeans are high in protein (more than any other legume) and fiber, low in carbohydrates and are nutrient-dense. Soybeans contain substances called phytoestrogens, which can significantly lower your "bad" LDL cholesterol and raise your "good" HDL cholesterol.