Women always find it exhausting to maintain a fine delicate balance between family, work or school/college. In this lifecycle struggle, nutrition becomes secondary and women give less importance to their dietary needs. Eating well while juggling their busy schedule becomes too difficult. With progressing time, they start fulfilling the family and children’s needs first and their own needs become less of a priority to them.
Sometimes to look good, women find affinity towards extreme diets, fads and unauthentic tips. This makes them nutrition deficient, cranky, irritable, low in energy, and hungry and lowers their quality of life. Most women underestimate the fact that the right nutrition at the appropriate time of their life, (puberty, adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy, lactation, menopause etc) can help them to be in a good mood, energetic, active, maintain a healthy weight and be happy from within. A woman deserves careful nutritional nurturing throughout her life.
Women vs men’s dietary needs
After birth, the dietary needs of both boys and girls are almost similar. By puberty, nutritional requirements change as per gender. With increasing age, physical and hormonal changes bring their dietary demands on the individual. Inability to meet these needs in long term leads to deficiencies, and under or over nutrition.
Women need fewer calories than men but the demand for a few essential vitamins and minerals is greater. Throughout their life, women go through hormonal changes, whether it is menstruation, pregnancy, lactation and menopause. Women become more prone to anaemia, weak bones, fractures, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Micronutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and Vitamin B9 (folate) play an important role in a woman’s life.
Nutritional requirements and supplements
Sometimes women try to fill their nutritional deficiencies by popping nutrient supplements. Most women ignore the fact that supplements only work against small nutritional gaps but cannot make up for an unhealthy or unbalanced diet. Women should always be suggested to have a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, good fats, and low processed high fried sugary foods.
Bone strengthening nutrients
It is required throughout life, as it makes bones and teeth strong, and helps maintain a healthy heart and nervous system. A good calcium body store also ensures a good mood, keeps away irritability, anxiety, and depression and offers good sleep health. Calcium works better in combination with magnesium and vitamin D.
Adult women aged 19-50 years need 1000mg/day and 50+ women need 1200 mg/day (RDA, ICMR). Low-fat dairy products, soybean, oranges, spinach, sesame seeds, ragi, grains and green leafy vegetables are some of the easily available rich sources of calcium.
Calcium absorption increases with the help of magnesium. 320-400 mg magnesium is required daily. It is easily available in food sources like green leafy vegetables, broccoli, green beans and seeds.
It plays a crucial role in calcium metabolism. Only 600 IU is required daily. One can get it in half an hour of exposure to the sun, vitamin D fortified foods, shellfishes, eggs, and cod liver oil.
Complications like unexplained weakness, tiredness, irritation, dizziness, drowsiness, inactiveness, low alertness, and poor concentration are experienced by many of us. In the first instance, we ignore them and start living with them. Slowly they start affecting our work and personal life. We blame it on stress and stop searching for causes until we come across any major health consequences. All these can be due to a lack of as iron.
A low level of iron in the blood reduces its oxygen-carrying capacity and therein lies the root of all the above problems. This condition is known as Iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). Global Nutritional Report 2017 reported that half of the women of reproductive age (14-45 years) are anaemic in India. The major reason behind this number is the lack of diagnosis and treatment.
Iron is a micronutrient but essential for forming haemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body. It also helps maintain normal healthy skin, hair and nails. Women need more iron due to a high blood loss during menstruation and match extra demand during pregnancy and lactation.
Iron needs vary according to age:
- 1-3 years girls need 7mg/day of iron.
- 4-8 years girls need 10mg/day of iron.
- 8-13 years girls need 8mg/day of iron.
- 14-18 years girls need 15mg/day of iron.
- 19-50 years women need 18mg/day of iron.
- Pregnant and lactating women need 27mg/day and 9mg/day of iron respectively.
Care should be given to choosing iron-rich foods, vegetarian sources like lentils, soybean, ragi, dried dates, raisins, jaggery, green leafy vegetables, rajma, chole, beetroot and non-vegetarian sources like fish, eggs, low-fat meat. Cooking methods like boiling, steaming, fermenting, germinating and soaking increase iron availability from food sources. While eating iron-rich food sources, iron absorption inhibitors like tannin from tea coffee, calcium and phytates from a few foods should be avoided. Iron absorption enhancers like vitamin C rich foods should be included in the diet.
It helps maintain good heart health and supports healthy pregnancy and lactation. The deficiency of folic acid causes mood swings, irritability, tiredness, depression and headaches. Normal women, pregnant women and lactating women require 400mcg, 500mcg and 600mcg iron respectively. Rich sources include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas and nuts.
Dietary lessons to boost fertility
While planning conception, a sufficient amount of iron and folic acid should be included in the diet. Fertility interfering factors like overindulging coffee, alcohol, cigarette smoking, stressful lifestyle, sedentary lifestyle and overuse of gadgets should be avoided. Important supplements like folic acid, zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and vitamin C. Also, male partners should be encouraged to add supplements such as zinc, vitamin C, calcium, and vitamin D.
Dietary advice to reduce premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms
Hormonal fluctuations during PMS cause bloating, cramping, and fatigue. An appropriate diet plays a crucial role in offering ease to these symptoms. Good sources of iron and zinc-rich foods should be included in the diet, like green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, eggs and low-fat meat products.
Attention should be given to including low-fat calcium-rich dairy products in the diet. High intake of coffee, alcohol, trans fat, deep-fried foods and high sugar processed foods should be avoided. Table salt and sugar should also be limited in use. Multivitamin supplements like magnesium, vitamin B6 and vitamin E can be added after consulting a health expert.
Pregnancy dietary recommendations
Foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, like fatty fish, cod liver oil, flaxseed or supplement should be added to the diet. This will aid in the baby’s brain and vision development. Alcohol and smoking should be strictly prohibited. Coffee intake should also be restricted. Small frequent meals should be suggested instead of a few large heavy meals. Good quality naturally available protein food sources like eggs, low-fat dairy products, soy products, lentils, and nuts should be added to the daily diet. Adequate water intake and rest also should be suggested.
Breastfeeding dietary suggestions
An extra 300 kcal/day more energy is required during breastfeeding. A good amount of attention should be given to daily protein and calcium intake. Supplements should be added as per the expert’s advice. A good amount of rest and destressing practices should be included in the daily routine. A small amount of water intake should be suggested before every feed. Emphasis should be given to making breasting a beautiful peaceful stress-free bonding time between both mother and the baby.
Dietary guidance to ease the symptoms of menopause
This condition occurs due to the reduction of a female hormone known as estrogen. A good balanced nutritious diet can help menopausal women to overcome the symptoms and complications easily. Special caution should be given to bone boosting nutrients. To reduce hot flushes symptoms, flaxseeds and soy products should be added and alcohol, high sugar, fried food and maida products should be restricted. Good fats like omega 3 and 6 fatty acids should be included in the diet.
Women offer nourishment to their family and loved ones throughout their life but in the process, she forgets themselves and their needs. Since childhood, they are mentally trained to neglect and grant limited priority to themselves. She is aware that a balanced diet is important but never be able to manage to include the same in their daily routine.
A slow steady shift in this mindset can be bought by counselling her caregivers about her, age-appropriate physical, emotional, mental and dietary needs. Unconditioned love, care and attention should be offered at every stage of a women’s life, so that she can manage her cravings, maintain a healthy weight, feel active and happy from within, and look and feel positive about themselves.
- J Hum Ecol, 29(3): 165-170 (2010