11 Best Foods for a Woman’s Health
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11 Best Foods for a Woman’s Health

Spinach during pregnancy, blueberries during perimenopause and other foods to eat as you age.

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By Taylor Lupo

Women have different health needs from men in a multitude of ways, and their diet is no exception. The first difference? Calories. “The average man has a higher metabolism, is larger and has more muscle mass than the average woman, therefore men need a higher level of calories,” says Kathryn Friedman, a nutritionist and certified holistic health coach with Lourdes Health System in Camden, New Jersey.

A woman’s dietary needs also differ throughout the various stages of her life. “There are several times when women need a higher level of certain nutrients and vitamins,” Friedman says. “During premenopause, the child-bearing years, perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause. Each stage calls for some specific consideration when it comes to diet.”

Gender aside, both men and women benefit from a healthy diet, one which Friedman describes as “high quality, includes whole, colorful foods as they exist in nature, and is a bit more of a plant-based diet.”

Find out which nutrient-rich eats are best for women at every stage of their lives. 

Premenopausal: Tofu

2 / 13 Premenopausal: Tofu

This soy-based plant protein is loaded with iron. “When women are still menstruating, they need more iron and folic acid,” Friedman says. Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Too little iron can lead to anemia, a condition in which your body’s organs don’t receive enough oxygen, resulting in fatigue and weakness. 

Menstruating women between the ages of 19 and 50 need about 18 milligrams (mg) of iron a day—more than twice as much as a man of the same age. Fear not, just one cup of tofu will deliver 4 mg of the mineral. It’s also a rich source of calcium and manganese, which help build and maintain strong bones and teeth, and play a role in regulating blood sugar and sex hormone levels. If you like oysters, Friedman says the mollusks are another great source of iron.    

 

Premenopausal: Spinach

3 / 13 Premenopausal: Spinach

Premenopausal women need plenty of iron, but pregnant woman need even more. For an expecting mother, the recommended intake jumps to 27 mg. Why? During pregnancy, the volume of blood and production of red blood cells increases, upping the need for iron.                                 

Spinach is a tasty way to meet your body’s need for iron. One cup of cooked spinach, in addition to being packed with 6.4 mg of iron, also contains tons of vitamin A, which regulates cell growth and vitamin K, important for normal blood clotting. Add this leafy green to your breakfast omelets, lunchtime salads and dinnertime pasta sauce

Premenopausal: Lentils

4 / 13 Premenopausal: Lentils

Iron isn’t the only nutrient women need during their premenopausal years. Folic acid, a B vitamin, is important, too. A great way to get it? Add lentils to your diet—just one cup of this cooked legume delivers 358 micrograms (mcg) of the nutrient.  

“Folic acid is a really important nutrient to help avoid certain birth defects,” Friedman says. Folic acid can help reduce the risk of spina bifida and anencephaly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend women of childbearing age get about 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Pregnant women, after speaking with their healthcare provider, may consider upping consumption to as much as 800 mcg a day. Women with a history of neural tube defect may need to take supplements containing as much as 4,000 mcg.

Lentils are also a rich source of protein and manganese, important for regulating blood sugar and normal brain and nerve function.  

Premenopausal: Broccoli

5 / 13 Premenopausal: Broccoli

Adding broccoli to your plate is a surefire way to bulk up nutrition without bulking up your waistline. One cup of chopped, cooked broccoli contains just 55 calories, but is loaded with folic acid, vitamin K—necessary for healthy blood clotting—and vitamin C, essential for cell growth and repair.        

Pregnancy isn’t the only reason to load your plate with green veggies. Although deficiencies are rare, too little folic acid can lead to folate-deficiency anemia, a condition in which a lack of folic acid inhibits the body’s ability to produce red blood cells that deliver oxygen throughout the body.

There’s good news for those who get enough—sufficient folic acid may help promote production of healthy blood cells, slow the onset of age-related hearing loss and enhance heart and brain health.

Perimenopause: Soybeans

6 / 13 Perimenopause: Soybeans

Perimenopause is the stage in a woman’s life during which her body is making the natural shift to menopause, the end of a woman’s reproductive years. The symptoms a woman may experience at this transitional period—such as hot flashes and mood swings—can be difficult for some.

There are foods, like soy beans, that might reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes. So how do these plump beans help in squelching flashes? Soybeans are loaded with isoflavones—compounds found in plants that have weak estrogen-like properties. In fact, one three-ounce serving of raw soybeans contains 128 milligrams of isoflavones.

Effortlessly incorporate soybeans into your cooking by adding them to soups, stews and stir fries or boil the pods and enjoy as edamame. A word to the wise, stay away from soy supplements, which can contain too much isoflavones. 

Perimenopause: Blueberries

7 / 13 Perimenopause: Blueberries

It’s never too early to start thinking about the health of your heart. The risk of heart disease increases as we age, but as estrogen levels drop, those risks continue to rise even more. A poor diet, smoking and lack of physical activity can also up your heart disease risk.

And while you can’t slow down aging, you can get a head start on preserving heart health before you reach menopause, by loading your diet with healthy eats. Blueberries are a great place to start, and are loaded with soluble fiber and other heart-healthy nutrients, like anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are flavonoids that research suggests play a beneficial role in preventing heart disease.

Fiber may also help lower risks of heart disease and stroke, which include obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. One cup of blueberries contains about 14 percent of the daily recommended value. 

Try mixing up your berry consumption by tossing in some strawberries, cranberries and raspberries, all loaded with heart-healthy properties, too!

Postmenopausal: Kale

8 / 13 Postmenopausal: Kale

Everybody needs calcium, which is important for maintaining the integrity of your body’s bones and teeth. Adults between the ages of 19 and 50 should aim to get the recommended 1,000 mg of calcium each day. But postmenopausal women need even more. According to the National Institutes of Health, women should up their calcium intake to about 1,200 mg a day starting at age 51. Women over the age of 50 are at an increased risk of osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak and brittle bones. A calcium-rich diet can slow this bone loss.

“What many people don't realize is that you don't have to eat a lot of dairy to get your calcium,” Friedman says. Kale, for example, is a rich source of the mineral, providing 187 mg of calcium per cooked cup. Here are some other great alternatives!

Postmenopausal: Sardines

9 / 13 Postmenopausal: Sardines

It may sound a bit fishy, but sardines are a rich source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium—569 mg per cup.

In addition to building strong bones, calcium works to promote normal nerve function, hormone levels and heart rate, all of which can deteriorate as women age. As you age, your heart can’t beat quite as fast during physical activity, the production of hormones and body metabolism changes and movements, thoughts and reflexes slow down.

Sardines also contain ample amounts of vitamin B12, required for proper nervous system function and vitamin D, which promotes cell growth and healthy immune function.

Postmenopausal: Salmon

10 / 13 Postmenopausal: Salmon

In addition to meeting calcium recommendations, Friedman also emphasizes the importance of getting enough vitamin D. The recommended daily intake for vitamin D is 600 international units (IU) for most everyone, except adults over the age of 70, who should up their intake to about 800 IU.

This particular vitamin is important for many reasons, including promoting the absorption of calcium which keeps bones strong and boosting immune function—both important as a woman ages.

An easy way to get nearly all of your daily recommended vitamin D? Grill up some salmon. A three-ounce portion of sockeye salmon contains 447 IU of vitamin D. Of course, salmon is a good source of other nutrients, like vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and may lower your risk of heart disease.

Postmenopausal: Eggs

11 / 13 Postmenopausal: Eggs

Another decent source of vitamin D is egg yolks—one large egg contains more than 17 IU. Vitamin D is essential for your bones and other parts of your body, and too little can throw a wrench in your health.

Vitamin D is delivered to your body in three ways: through exposure to sunlight, your diet or supplements. As you age, the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D decreases, and impaired mobility, not uncommon among older adults, can make getting time in the sun more difficult.

The primary worry for those with deficiencies is a loss of bone density, which can lead to osteoporosis and increase the risk of fracture. Osteoporosis and fractures are more common among women over the age of 50 than men of the same age.

Postmenopausal: Chicken

12 / 13 Postmenopausal: Chicken

In addition to the potential loss of bone density, a downshift in estrogen can also result in a loss of muscle mass. The trouble with this? Diminished muscle mass can make it harder or impossible to complete physical tasks you may once have been able to. 

The biggest culprits in loss of strength include physical inactivity and inadequate protein intake. To keep from losing necessary strength, women in this stage should continue to eat good sources of protein, like chicken. A three ounce serving of boneless, skinless chicken breast contains 27 grams of protein.

Getting between 10 percent and 35 percent of your daily calories from protein is recommended, but the perfect amount of protein can be determined by your sex, age and activity level. 

Looking to up your odds of preserving muscle mass? Give resistance training, like planks, a try!

Adopting Other Healthy Habits

13 / 13 Adopting Other Healthy Habits

Eating foods high in the right nutrients can be beneficial for women throughout their lives, and foods like spinach, salmon and broccoli should be enjoyed no matter your age.

“The healthier your diet, no matter what age you're at, you're going to be better off because you're giving your body the nutrients it needs,” Friedman says.

As important as it may be to eat just the right amount of spinach during premenopausal years or salmon in the years following menopause, for best health, women should also get enough quality rest and practice good self-care habits, like managing stress, Friedman believes.

“Sleep is a huge link to stress and to weight, so the more you can focus on getting a good amount of sleep each night, that's going to help you cope with stress, which is going to help you in your efforts to lose weight,” Friedman concludes.