The Importance Of Nutrition In Women

By Tanya Alberts, RD(SA)

As women we differ from men on various different levels including biological and molecular level as well as mentally, physically and behavioural. We would choose different types of food to eat and in different portions. We tend to have more emotional eating behaviours compared to men and it’s not for the healthy food options. When we have spurts of emotional eating we normally go for sugary or fatty foods that give instant gratification.

Women are very unique with very unique nutritional needs. We need to remember we are “Super-Women”; we don’t just differ in our physiology, we also have various roles such as being mothers and wives, many of us have our own careers and we want to make a home and care for our families.

As women we do not always realize how important nutrition is for us. We care for so many people around us and we forget about ourselves. We are able to report what the whole family eats but when it comes to our own diets we don’t have a clue what we ate yesterday or the day before. We eat on the go, it’s not balanced and majority of the time we just skip the meal as there is no time to eat.

We all know what healthy eating is. It means having a variety of foods to sustain you for the day, heal your body and provide the correct amount of nutrients for all body parts to function optimally. Nutrient-rich foods provide energy for women’s busy lives and help to reduce the risk of disease. To make it simpler, the basics for the day will include the following:

  • At least 3 portions of whole grains such as whole-grain bread, buckwheat, quinoa, whole-wheat cereals, whole-wheat pastas, brown rice or oats.
  • Three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy products including milk, plain yogurt or cheese; or calcium-fortified plant-based alternatives like soya milk, almond milk and coconut milk.
  • Building foods in the form of 150g of protein such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds. Including regular plant based proteins provides more fibre for a healthy gut.
  • Then our protective foods should include:
    • Two cups of fruits — fresh, frozen or canned without added sugar. It is better to eat your fruit than to drink it to make sure you have enough fibre in your diet and not too much sugar.
    • Two-and-a-half cups of colourful vegetables — fresh, frozen or canned without added salt. Try to eat most of your vegetables in its raw form majority of the time.
  • 1-2 portions of healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds, olives and olive oil.


What are the most important nutrients for women?

1) Iron

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world. It is associated with fatigue, dizziness, cold hands and feet. Iron overload, on the other hand, is equally detrimental affecting the liver. One of the main roles of iron is to help our red blood cells transport oxygen to all parts of the body. Iron is an important component of hemoglobin. Iron also plays an important role in specific processes within the cell that produce the energy for our bodies. It is for this reason that one of the first symptoms of low body iron stores is tiredness and fatigue.

The recommended dietary intake of iron: 8mg/day (males) and 18mg/day (females)

Iron content per 100g of food

HAEM IRON (Animal protein based)              NON HAEM IRON (Plant-based)

Chicken liver (cooked) 8.5mg                                     Soya Beans (cooked) 5.1 mg

Sardines 2.9mg                                                           Apricots (dried) 4.7 mg

Pilchards in Tomato Sauce 2.7mg                              Spinach (cooked) 3.6 mg

Beef (mince, cooked) 2.6 mg                                     Lentils (cooked) 2.3 mg

Eggs (cooked) 1.8mg                                                 Sugar Beans (cooked) 2.1 mg


Plant-based sources of iron are more easily absorbed by your body when eaten with vitamin C-rich foods. So eat fortified cereal with strawberries on top, spinach salad with orange or mango slices or add tomatoes to lentil soup.

Iron should not just be supplemented without confirming a low blood iron level with a blood test done by your health care practitioner. Remember to retest your iron blood level if you did start supplementing and do so under your health care practitioners supervision.


2) Calcium and Vitamin D

The need for both calcium and vitamin D increases as women get older. Both calcium and vitamin D are required for healthy bones and teeth. Bone health is crucial for providing structure, anchoring muscles and storing calcium. Calcium keeps bones strong and helps to reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease in which the bones become weak and break easily.

Sources of Calcium:

  • Low-fat cheddar cheese (50g) 450 mg calcium
  • Yoghurt, plain (3/4 cup) 330 mg calcium
  • Skim (fat-free) milk (1 cup) 325 mg calcium
  • Fortified soy or rice beverage (1 cup) 320 mg calcium
  • Tofu, firm (150g) 235 mg calcium
  • Canned salmon, with bones (75g) 210 mg calcium
  • Sardines, canned in oil (1/2 can) 200 mg calcium
  • Kefir, plain (3/4 cup) 185 mg calcium
  • Edamame (soybeans) (1/2 cup) 130 mg calcium
  • Spinach, boiled (1/2 cup) 130 mg calcium

Adults 19-50 years old should not exceed 2500mg calcium per day.

Adequate amounts of vitamin D are important. Vitamin D plays an important role in protecting your bones, both by helping your body absorb calcium and by supporting muscles needed to avoid falls. Children need vitamin D to build strong bones, and adults need it to keep their bones strong and healthy. Vitamin D is crucial for calcium concentrations, bone health, immune function, normal functioning of the endocrine and cardiovascular systems and the reduction of inflammation.

Vitamin D is produced from a chemical known as 7-dehydrocholesterol, which is found in the skin. When ultraviolet light from the sun shines on the skin, 7-dehydrocholesterol is converted into a compound called pre-vitamin D3. After a series of chemical reactions, the active form of vitamin D is produced and must regulate calcium levels.

Since limited foods supply Vitamin D, supplementation in the D3 form may be required. It is recommended to measure Vitamin D stores regularly (blood tests) and based on those results, supplementation of 1,000 IU

vitamin D3 daily, may be the ideal therapeutic dosing. But this will need to be done under your health care practitioners supervision.

Food sources of Vitamin D:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Milk, cow’s
  • Tuna
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms, Shitake

3) Folate rich food

Folate (Vitamin B9) is required for numerous processes: DNA maintenance, to aid in the production of red blood cells detoxification and hormone production to mention just a few.  Folate deficiency decrease pancreatic digestive enzyme secretion and impairs the digestive and absorptive function of the gut lining and when women reach childbearing age, they need to eat enough folate (or folic acid) to help decrease the risk of birth defects.

In some cases a folate supplement will be the better option. This is especially true for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, since their daily need for folate is higher, 600 mcg and 500 mcg per day, respectively. Be sure to check with your physician or a registered dietician before taking any supplements. The requirement for women who are not pregnant is 400 micrograms (mcg) per day.

Foods that naturally contain folate:

  • citrus fruits (oranges & grapefruit, and their juices)
  • leafy greens (spinach, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, asparagus, broccoli)
  • beans and peas
  • Sprouter legumes (mung bean, lentil, chickpeas)


What foods should be limited?

Women should avoid excess added sugars, saturated fat and alcohol as this can increase inflammation and unwanted body fat.

  • Limit sugar containing drinks, including regular cold drinks, sweets, biscuits, pastries and other desserts.
  • As an adult, if you choose to drink alcohol limit the intake to one drink per day. One drink is equal to 330ml of beer, 1 regular 125ml glass of wine or 1 regular tot of liquor/spirits.
  • Eat fewer foods that are high in saturated fat. Opt for low-fat or fat-free dairy products and lean proteins instead of their full-fat counterparts. Cook with olive oil instead of butter and coconut oil. Incorporate more plant-based protein foods, such as beans, lentils and tofu, into your diet as this provides more fibre and no fat which will help to manage you calorie intake and appetite.


Is it easy to eat healthy?

We all have habitual patterns of eating. We have learned them from our surroundings and how we grew up. As women we can get into the habit of not eating or eating non nutritional fast foods or snacks because we don’t have time to eat. To change this you need to replace a bad habit with a good one but replacing a bad habit with a good habit takes time and patience. It requires several steps, from setting your goals to getting support. The most important step in my opinion is figuring out what is stopping you from making the change.

Some barriers can include the following:

  • “I have no time to change.”
  • “It is too expensive to eat healthy.”
  • “I don’t know what to eat.”
  • “I don’t think I will be able to change how I currently eat.”
  • “I don’t like vegetables.”

If you are able to identify these barriers it will help you change bad habits into good habits because you will have a plan to get past them or influence the impact of them.

A barrier is anything that causes you to slip up in your goal to make lifestyle changes, such as not skipping meals or eating nutritional meals or snacks.

The support part is there to keep you motivated, build accountability and help you when you hit those unexpected barriers and you do not know how to overcome them on your own. A support system can include but is not limited to your family, a friend, a counsellor, a psychologist, a dietician or a doctor. We are all human and we do have slip-ups. However, you need to have a plan for how to get back on track.

As women we are very special and should not take our health for granted. So as “Super-Women”, be mindful in your choices.

See my next article on how to overcome some of these barriers.

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About the author:

Tanya has been providing dietary guidance since 2009 as a registered dietician licensed in South Africa. Her goal is to help patients understand the connection between diet and diagnosis for improved nutritional well being.

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