Diet and Nutrition

Health on the Plate: Nutrition for Women

At least three times a day we have the opportunity to positively affect our health with the food choices we make. Balancing taste, cost, ease, time and nutrition can become unwieldy, but we do our best and hope that we are giving ourselves the basics that we need. Those needs vary by age, activity and gender. Women require specialized nutrition and providing it can have a big impact on health and longevity.

Women have a lower average weight than men. As well as smaller lean muscle mass. Muscle requires greater energy supply to maintain. These factors combine to explain why recommended calorie goals for women are lower than for men – typically 400 calories a day lower. Food choices then have extra importance, since women must meet their nutritional needs within a smaller plate. Add to that a woman’s additional dietary needs and you appreciate the challenge that every woman faces as she chooses meals for herself and the women and girls in her life.

Menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause all create additional demands on a women’s body. Keeping in mind these few special needs when planning meals can make a big difference in overall health. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just focusing on whole, unprocessed foods, plenty of vegetables and a good variety is an excellent start.

Iron is a mineral used by the body to create the protein hemoglobin. Hemoglobin functions in the blood to transport oxygen to the tissues. An insufficiency will result in anemia, causing weakness, fatigue, sluggish thinking, decreased immune function and low body temperature. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to anemia due to their inconsistent diets combined with rapid growth. Women lose iron, through blood loss, during mensuration, as well as during surgery, infections, ulcers or uterine fibroids. Iron is also one of the many nutrients needed to support a healthy pregnancy. It is recommended that women consume 18 mg of iron daily, in comparison to just 8 for men. That 10 extra mg translates to over a half a pound of beef or 7 cups of broccoli. Good sources for iron also include potatoes, tofu, dried fruit, turkey, brown rice, spinach, chard, peas, beans, lentils, oatmeal, bran cereal, whole grains, nuts, squash and pumpkin seeds, liver and mollusks. And just to prove that nature is sometimes very kind, one square of dark chocolate packs 5 mg of iron. There are plenty of delicious sources to enjoy.


Calcium is a crucial nutrient for healthy bodies. While we all recognize its role as a building material for our bones and teeth, it is also vital for hormone secretion, blood clotting, muscle function and serves as a messenger within your cells. During pregnancy, calcium is used to build baby’s skeleton. Low fat dairy, canned fish with bones –such as salmon, tofu, green leafy veggies, fortified cereals and breads, white beans, dried figs, almonds, fortified orange juice all provide lots of calcium. It is recommended that women under 50 consume 1000 mg of calcium a day (a cup of milk provides 300 mg.) If you are over 50 the recommendation increases to 1500 mg, due to the decrease of estrogen in your system. Estrogen supports the absorption of calcium by the intestines. Less estrogen means your body becomes less efficient at absorbing the calcium you do consume, putting you at risk for osteoporosis. Add a tofu smoothie to your breakfast menu or snack on a handful of almonds, your body will thank you.

While many women recognize the critical importance of folic acid before and during pregnancy, there is benefit from this nutrient at all times. Research has shown strong evidence of a heart protective benefit. Folic acid reduces the hardening of the arteries that contributes to heart attack and stroke. There is also a great deal of interest in the cancer protective role that folic acid may play, particularly for colon cancer. But results have been mixed and research continues. For women over the age of 14 the recommendation is 400 mg per day, if you are pregnant you need 600 mg and breastfeeding moms need 500 mg. Given that a great number of pregnancies are unplanned and that folic acid is vital in the earliest weeks of a pregnancy, before many women even realize they are pregnant, this nutrient is essential to all women who can become pregnant. Folic acid is found in leafy vegetables, beans, whole grains and citrus fruit. In America, many cereals and grain products are enriched with folic acid. Still, it is difficult to meet your requirements with food alone, making a supplement an important addition to your daily routine.

No discussion of healthy diet is complete without a case for increasing your fiber. Fiber adds bulk to your diet, helping you feel satisfied without increasing your caloric intake. It helps to control blood sugar by slowing the digestion of carbohydrates and their entry into the bloodstream. Higher fiber intake is associated with lower cholesterol, which protects the heart. The recommended fiber intake for women is around 25 grams per day, while men require 38 grams. Most of us average around 15 g, so focusing a little attention on our fiber would benefit us all. Luckily it is all around us, in so many beautiful forms. Beans of all varieties, brans, berries, whole grains, peas, nuts, kale, cabbage, those leafy greens (once again), squash, potatoes and whole fruits all shine as fiber sources.

It can seem overwhelming to meet all of the nutritional needs of your body with each meal, let alone for an entire family. It’s enough to make you dream of space age nutrient smoothies or meal replacement pills. But relax, if you can approach meals with the goals of variety, color, whole fruits, vegetables and grains, limiting sugary drinks, and being mindful of portions you will find that meeting our body’s needs is not as complicated as it seems. Remember that each individual meal is not as critical as your overall intake. If lunch was a little weak in fiber, add a big salad to dinner. Each meal is a new opportunity to improve your health. Enjoy your food. Share the bounty and beauty of it with those you love. While women may have a few extra nutritional needs to meet, we all benefit from the community and pleasure that surround good food.

For additional information:

Folic acid



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Alison Relyea-Parr

Alison Relyea-Parr

Alison is the editor and contributor of A UW-Madison graduate, Alison is also an illustrator and educator.