When it comes to the basics of healthy eating, there’s no doubt that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. No matter your gender, you can’t go wrong with eating a variety of healthy foods including lots of fresh vegetables and fruit; legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds; lean proteins and dairy; healthy fats and whole grains. Combine those healthy eating guidelines with regular physical activity plus the awareness that we require fewer calories than men, and women can do a lot to safeguard their health. Inevitably though, finely etched into the fabric of women’s lives are the details of our difference, and we do have some unique needs when it comes to certain micronutrients, which shift in focus during our changing life stages.
Maryke Bronkhorst, a Registered Dietitian, and spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) points out that our reproductive years represent the major portion of our lives. “Women and girls of reproductive age, who are not pregnant or breastfeeding, should strive for optimal nutritional status for their own health and for the health of any future children,” Maryke says. “Good nutrition during the reproductive years helps set the foundation for health in years to come.
It helps ensure proper growth during adolescence, adequate nutrient stores for a healthy pregnancy, and a good nutritional status to help maintain bone health during the menopausal and postmenopausal time of life. Many women’s health issues are related to the hormonal shifts in estrogen and progesterone associated with the menstrual cycle. These include a higher risk of anemia, weakened bones, and osteoporosis. Malnutrition, as either under- or over-nutrition, can also have adverse effects on women’s health and fertility.”
Top tips for your reproductive years are:
- Achieve and maintain healthy body weight. Underweight is related to poor nutritional status; heart irregularities; osteoporosis; amenorrhea (absent menstruation); and infertility in women. Obesity is associated with increased risk of chronic disease and obesity-related anovulation (ovulation does not occur during the menstrual cycle) which affects fertility
- Consume a healthy, balanced diet. Women should enjoy a variety of foods across all food groups. Include whole grains, plenty of vegetables and fruit, healthy fats, dairy, and lean protein sources. Limit processed foods, salt, saturated and trans-fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar. Remember that supplementation cannot compensate for an unhealthy or unbalanced diet
- Exercise regularly. Research shows that women are less physically active than men. Find sports and activities that get you moving that you enjoy and try to ensure a minimum of three hours of physical activity every week
- Avoid harmful substances including tobacco and vaping products, alcohol, recreational drugs, and environmental toxins
- Include iron-rich protein food in your diet like lean meat, eggs, and fish or plant sources such as spinach, beans, and lentils, and eat these in combination with Vitamin C rich foods to help improve iron absorption. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies that result from losing more iron than one takes in. Menstruation depletes a woman’s iron stores. Iron deficiency reduces the ability to complete any work, lowering productivity and performance. We know that worldwide, women do more unpaid work in the household than men. If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, make sure to take your iron supplement daily as prescribed.
What about pregnancy?
This incredibly special time in a women’s life can become a minefield when it comes to everyone’s opinions about pregnancy do’s and don’ts. What is critical for pregnant women is to turn a blind eye to old wives’ tales and the latest fads and to rather follow professional, evidence-based nutritional advice.
Pregnant women and breastfeeding moms do have important nutritional requirements that support both their health and the health of their precious baby. Maryke highlights the importance of healthy weight gain: “Ideally, healthy weight should be achieved prior to conception but, of course, this can only be worked on in the case of a planned pregnancy. What mums-to-be need to understand is that obese pregnant women have increased rates of pregnancy-related hypertension, gestational diabetes, large babies, C-section, perinatal morbidity and mortality. Conversely, underweight pregnant women have greater risks when it comes to preterm delivery, low birth weight, and foetal growth restrictions. Healthy weight gain during pregnancy is important for the health of both the mother and the foetus, and it has a positive impact both during and after pregnancy. However, weight loss during pregnancy should be avoided.”
Top tips for pregnancy and breastfeeding are:
- Focus on the basics of a healthy, balanced diet every day
- Avoid harmful substances including tobacco and vaping products, alcohol, recreational drugs and environmental toxins
- Reduce your caffeine intake to no more than200mg or two coffees daily and remember caffeine is also present in teas, hot chocolate and sodas
- Exercise up to 30 minutes daily as approved by your health care professional
- Take prenatal supplements as prescribed by your health care professional
- Avoid certain foods to prevent the chance of foodborne illness such as soft cheeses, sushi and deli meats. Also, avoid fish that may contain high levels of mercury such as albacore tuna, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. And limit excessive liver consumption.
During and after menopause
While the basics of a healthy, balanced diet stay the same, your post-reproductive years herald some slight changes in your healthy eating regime. Maryke notes that a common concern for women during and post-menopause is ‘unexplained’ weight gain, especially around the abdomen. “This is attributed to many factors, “she says, “such as changes in hormones affecting metabolism; the loss of lean body mass which is part of the ageing process; reduced basal metabolic rate; lifestyle changes and changes in physical activity.” It is important to note that your calorie requirements are reduced post-menopause due to a natural metabolic ‘slow down’. Focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods in smaller portions, cutting down on processed foods and foods that are high in fat and sugar, as well as maintaining (or increasing) regular physical activity. Due to the cessation of menstruation, iron requirements are reduced.
Top Nutritional Tips:
- Consume a healthy, balanced diet – Menopausal women should also consider including more plant-based foods in their diet
- Be physically active – During and post-menopause, women should engage in regular physical activities that they enjoy – this should include aerobic, resistance, and weight-bearing exercises that are protective of bone, heart, and emotional health
- Manage your weight – As we age, excessive weight gain is a risk factor for other health conditions. If you find yourself struggling to maintain a healthy weight, get the help of a registered dietitian, who will take all aspects of your lifestyle into account to assist you in reaching a healthy weight
- Protect your heart health – Menopausal women often experience changes in blood lipid levels (for example raised cholesterol levels), therefore it is important to include healthy fats in your diet. The focus should be on plant-based sources of unsaturated fats, such as nuts and seeds and their oils, avocado, and especially sources of omega-3, such as sardines, pilchards or salmon. Limit saturated and trans-fats.
- Include phytoestrogens in your diet – These plant-based oestrogens may mimic the oestrogen produced in the body. Some studies show that the intake of soy may help to manage menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. Sources include soy, soymilk, tofu, tempeh, and soybeans
- Avoid fad diets- These are unsustainable in the long-term; they often don’t meet your nutrient requirements, and they can adversely affect metabolism
Maintaining a healthy weight for a lifetime
From girlhood through to old age, we benefit greatly from maintaining a healthy weight. Another ADSA spokesperson and Registered Dietitian, Nathalie Mat makes the point that South African women tend to weigh more than our male counterparts, which puts us at greater risk of a number of health conditions including Type 2 diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. “One of the key identified reasons is physical inactivity, says Nathalie. “South African women tend to exercise less than men do and this increases the likelihood that they will gain weight.” Nathalie also warns against unregulated portion size, especially when eating out: “Chefs have no idea whether the food they are dishing up in the kitchen is going to a woman or a man. As women, we need to be acutely aware that the portions we are eating when out are most probably more food than we need. This means we need to stop eating when we have had enough, instead of eating mindlessly until we finish the plate.”