Women and Nutrition; a Menu of Special Needs

By Stehlin, Dori | FDA Consumer, January-February 1991 | Go to article overview

Women and Nutrition; a Menu of Special Needs


Stehlin, Dori, FDA Consumer


Women and Nutrition

Breast cancer. Osteoporosis. Iron deficiency. Weight reduction. What do these things have in common? They are either unique to women, or are more prevalent in women. And they affect current recommendations on what women should eat for optimum health.

While new information on what's good and what's bad seems to surface almost daily, some basic guidelines have taken root over the past several years.

The bottom line (also known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture) is:

* eat a variety of foods

* maintain healthy weight

* choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol

* choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grain products

* use sugar and salt/sodium only in moderation

* if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

That sounds simple enough. Except, what exactly is variety? Cake one day, cookies the next? What is a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol? And, finally, what parts of a healthy diet have special importance for women?

Vitamins and Minerals

There are several vitamins and minerals essential to a healthy diet. A well-balanced diet will usually meet women's allowances for them. (See accompanying box.) However, for good health, women need to pay special attention to two minerals, calcium and iron.

Calcium

Both women and men need enough calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass during their early years of life. Low calcium intake appears to be one important factor in the development of osteoporosis. Women have a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis.

A condition in which progressive loss of bone mass occurs with aging, osteoporosis causes the bones to be more susceptible to fracture. If a woman has a high level of bone mass when her skeleton matures, this may modify her risk of developing osteoporosis.

Therefore, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood, women should increase their food sources of calicum. "The most important time to get a sufficient amount of calcium is while bone growth and consolidation are occurring, a period that continues until approximately age 30 to 35," says Marilyn Stephenson, a registered dietitian with FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "The idea is, if you can build a maximum peak of calcium deposits early on, this may delay fractures that occur later in life."

The recommended dietary allowance (RDS) for calcium for woman 19 to 24 is 1,200 milligrams per day. For women 25 and older, the allowance drops to 800 milligrams, but that is still a significant amount, says Stephenson. "The need for good dietary sources of calcium continues throughout life," she says.

How do you get enough calcium without too many calories and fat? After all, the foods that top the calcium charts--milk, cheese, ice cream--aren't calorie and fat lightweights.

"There are lots of lower fat choices," says Stephenson. "There's 1 percent or skim milk instead of whole milk. There's a good variety of lower fat cheeses, yogurts, and frozen yogurts, and there's a whole flock of substitutes for ice cream."

In addition to dairy foods, other good sources of calcium include salmon, tofu (soybean curd), certain vegetables (for example, broccoli), legumes (peas and beans), calcium-enriched grain products, lime-processed tortillas, seeds, and nuts.

Iron

For women, the RDA for iron is 15 milligrams per day, 5 milligrams more than the RDA for men. Women need more of this mineral because they lose an average of 15 to 20 milligrams of iron each month during menstruation. Without enough iron, iron deficiency anemia can develop and cause symptoms that include pallor, fatigue and headaches.

After menopause, body iron stores generally begin to increase. …

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