While both men and women need to eat healthy, exercise and avoid bad habits — like a 4 p.m. doughnut run — some health issues are more likely to affect women and can be influenced by what you eat.
Reducing the risk of bone loss, coping with hormonal changes and preventing heart problems are all tied to what and how much we eat. An estimated one of every three cancer deaths in the United States is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition and/or lack of physical activity, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Studies have shown that a diet high in saturated fat and trans fats leads to heart disease,” said Linette de Armas, a pediatric dietitian at Holtz Children’s Hospital at UM/Jackson Memorial Medical Center.
Indeed, the federal Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this month that food companies have three years to eliminate the artery-clogging trans fats from their foods.
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Fighting a battle against weight gain, too many women turn to fad diets that may help in the short run but aren’t a permanent solution, the experts said.
“If a diet is something too restrictive, like eliminating a certain food group or too good to be true, that’s a key sign it’s a crash diet,” said Lucette Talamas, a dietitian at Baptist Health South Florida. “It’s all about having a healthy lifestyle, building a plate of proportion with five food groups and making the best choices. Fad diets can give people quick results, but we’re in it for life.”
Eating a variety of foods helps maintain that lifestyle, said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston. Scientists are also looking at food synergy, the idea that you get maximum benefits when certain foods are eaten together.
“We need to educate the public not just on portion control, but the proper combination of foods,” de Armas said.
A splash of citrus, strawberries, tomatoes or bell peppers can help the body get the most benefit out of leafy greens, for instance. Vitamin C helps the body absorb the iron found in vegetables like spinach, kale or Swiss chard. Eating an apple with almond or cashew butter adds Omega 3 for a more dynamic snack. And the health benefits of turmeric, the golden spice in curries, are more effective when used with black pepper.
And women do have different needs at different ages, experts said..
“The 20s is your last chance to build up your bone density,” Talamas said. “For young girls in college and starting to work, it’s important to have three servings of dairy or dairy alternatives every day.
Dark green vegetables are an excellent source of calcium, said Sheah Rarback, director of the nutrition division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a Miami Herald columnist. One cup of collard greens has 350 mg of calcium, the same or more than a glass of milk, she said. A cup of broccoli has 95 mg and a cup of kale 180 mg.
“Milk is a good source of calcium but the older we get the more we build an intolerance to it,” de Armas said.
In the 20s and the 30s, it’s important to get enough folic acid, especially for women planning on having children. Folic acid is found in fortified cereals, citrus, whole grains and beans, although pregnant women usually take a supplement.
As for bloating issues, several foods are natural diuretics, including pineapples and a splash of lemon with hot or cold water, Rarback said. If you were wondering about cranberry juice, she said there is evidence it can help a urinary tract infection.
When women reach their 40s and 50s, their metabolism is changing, Talamas said, and “weight might be a struggle.” It’s important to keep up physical activity, particularly weight-bearing exercises, and to get enough vitamin D, which may require a supplement.
For the 60s and beyond, there’s muscle loss through aging. Women should eat lean proteins, and they may have trouble absorbing vitamin B12.
Past the menopausal age, the biggest challenges are osteoporosis and heart disease, de Armas said.
No one food can do it all, but here are 10 superfoods that will help promote good health and fight disease:
1. Almonds/walnuts: They both provide a good type of fat and B vitamins that help lower bad cholesterol and cancer risk. Almonds are a good source of vitamin E, which is good for the skin. Walnuts have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and are a source of Omega 3. Add flaxseeds and chia seeds for a healthy snack.
2. Avocados: They’re high in heart-healthy fat, raising good cholesterol, lowering bad cholesterol. They’re also an excellent source of potassium and vitamins C, K and E.
3. Beans: All beans are beneficial, said Cleveland Clinic’s Craggs-Dino. They have a high antioxidant level, they’re good for the heart, provide protein and fight cancer.
4. Beets: They’re rich in antioxidants, a source of fiber and iron with anti-cancer properties. Beets are also high in B vitamins, but they do have a high sugar content, so eat them in moderation.
5. Berries: Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries have different nutrients so eat a variety. Raspberries are high in vitamin K, which is necessary for bone health, Craggs-Dino said. All are high in antioxidants, which fight cancer and are a good source of potassium, which helps fight high blood pressure.
6. Broccoli: Cruciferous vegetables, which include Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower, offer antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C and beta-carotene. Dark green vegetables, including kale, spinach and collard greens, are also a defense against disease. “They’re not only high in antioxidants, they’re high in folic acid,” Craggs-Dino said.
7. Carrots: The veggie is one of the best sources of beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. Bright orange fruits and vegetables, including carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and mangoes, have an abundance of vitamins, fiber and phytonutrients that are good for your skin, eyes and heart.
8. Greek or low-fat yogurt: It’s a good source of calcium and probiotics. The key is checking the label to ensure you’re not getting yogurt with a lot of sugar. Add your own berries and fruit to plain Greek yogurt for a power snack.
9. Papaya: The fruit is high in vitamin C, good for digestive health and three ounces of papaya has only 39 calories. Other good sources of vitamin C include citrus, kiwi, guava, bell peppers and broccoli.
10. Salmon: Along with sardines, anchovies and barramundi, salmon is an excellent source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which help lower triglycerides and reduce blood clots. The fatty fish also provide calcium and help reduce inflammation.