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Women have special nutritional needs due to hormonal changes that occur with menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause, all of which alter the recommended daily intake of nutrients. Of the many diseases that affect women, five have a scientific-based connection to nutrition: iron-deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. In addition, many women look to nutrition for the management of premenstrual and menopausal symptoms.
Nutrition for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Good nutrition is important during pregnancy and breastfeeding, as there is an increased need for calories and for most nutrients. A particularly important nutrient during pregnancy is folic acid, one of the B vitamins. Folic acid reduces the chance of having a baby with birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Experts recommend that women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms (mg) of folic acid every day. Pregnant women should consume 600 mg per day. Good sources of folic acid include dark green leafy vegetables, oranges and orange juice, dried beans and peas, and fortified breads and cereals.
Adequate calcium intake during both pregnancy and breastfeeding is also important, since calcium is drawn from the mother. The recommended intake of calcium during pregnancy and lactation is 1,000 mg a day. A pregnant or lactating teenager needs 1,300 mg of calcium a day. Before becoming pregnant, a woman should discuss folic acid or calcium supplementation with a physician, as well as multivitamin supplementation.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy may trigger a condition called gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is characterized by high levels of sugar in the blood. The condition can be diagnosed by a screening test between the twenty-fourth and twenty-eighth week of pregnancy. Changes in diet and exercise are often sufficient to keep blood sugar levels in the normal range. For most women, the condition goes away after the birth of the baby. Women who have gestational diabetes are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later in life.
PMS and Menopause
Many women seek medical help for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). While nutrition advice often varies, there is insufficient scientific evidence that any diet modifications will prevent or relieve PMS symptoms. A combination of good nutrition, exercise, and stress management may be the best way to relieve the symptoms of PMS.
Soy has garnered much attention in recent years as a dietary treatment for menopausal symptoms. Soy is a rich source of isoflavones, an estrogen-like substance found in plants. Some studies suggest that regularly
eating moderate amounts of soy-based food products can help decrease menopausal symptoms; however, other studies do not support the idea. More research is needed to gain a better understanding of the effects of soy on menopausal symptoms.
During menopause, a woman's metabolism slows down and weight gain can occur. The accumulation of body fat around the abdomen also increases. Exercise and careful food choices can minimize both of these occurrences.
As women age, the risk of developing chronic disease increases. Women over age forty-five who are overweight, physically inactive, and have a family history of diabetes are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a varied and balanced diet, and engaging in an active lifestyle can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes carries many risks with it, including eye disease, nerve disease, kidney disease, and heart disease.
Women are at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis as they age than men are. Osteoporosis is an irreversible disease in which the bones become porous and break easily. There are many factors that contribute to this disease, including genetics, diet, hormones, age, and lifestyle factors. The disease usually has no symptoms until a fracture occurs.
Diets low in calcium, vitamin D, or magnesium— or high intakes of caffeine, alcohol, sodium, phosphorous,orprotein—may increase the chance of developing osteoporosis. Good nutrition and weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, hiking, or climbing stairs, helps to build strong bones.
Good sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and milk; canned fish with bones, such as salmon and sardines; dark green leafy vegetables; and calcium-fortified foods such as orange juice, bread, and cereal. The recommended intake of calcium for women ages nineteen to fifty is 1,000 mg per day. Women over the age of fifty should consume 1,200 mg of calcium per day.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among U.S. women other than skin cancer. Obese, sedentary women are more likely to develop breast cancer, and dietary factors may possibly play a role in its development. Some studies suggest that excessive fat intake may increase breast-cancer risk, either by raising estrogen levels in a woman or by altering immune function. Diets that include adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods may protect against breast cancer. However, controversy exists as to whether diet is actually a contributing factor. Excessive alcohol consumption does appear to raise the risk of breast cancer in women.
The risk of developing heart disease begins to rise once a woman reaches menopause, and it increases rapidly after age sixty-five. Dietary risk factors involved in the cause or prevention of heart disease include dietary antioxidants, dietary fiber, and the type and amount of fat in the diet. Antioxidants are non-nutrient compounds in foods that protect the body's cells from damage. They are found in fruits and vegetables. Soluble fiber, such as the fiber in oatmeal, helps to lower blood cholesterol levels, while levels of cholesterol in the blood increase in response to diets high in total fat and/or saturated fat. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a risk factor for heart disease.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is related to heart disease. After menopause, women with hypertension outnumber men with the condition. Weight control, an active lifestyle, a diet low in salt and fat, and with plenty of fruits and vegetables may help to prevent hypertension.
Good nutrition is the cornerstone of good health for a woman, but the many phases of a woman's life require nutritional adjustments. Learning and following dietary recommendations, and making the appropriate nutritional adjustments, can improve a woman's quality of life and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Grosvenor, Mary B., Smolin, Lora A. (2002). Nutrition: From Science to Life. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt College Publishers.
Mitmesser, Susan Hazels (2003). “Nutrition Needs and Cardiovascular Risk in Women.” Today's Dietitian 5(10):30—33.
American Dietetic Association. “Women's Health and Nutrition.” Available from <http://www.eatright.org>
Food and Nutrition Information Center. “Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) and Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA).” Available from <http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic>
March of Dimes. “Folic Acid FAQ.” Available from <http://www.marchofdimes.com>
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Information for Pregnant Women.” Available from <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov>
WebDietitian. “Nutrition in Women's Health.” Available from <http://www.webdietitian.com>