Given rising obesity rates and the incidence of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, which can all be associated with consuming the wrong diet, a lot of attention is being paid to finding precisely the “right” or best diet. But what exactly that is varies quite a bit from one person to another and from one population group to another.
We don’t know all the specifics about how nutrition influences health and which foods to eat more of or avoid depending on discrete factors such as age, gender or body type. But we do know that a balanced diet that provides the full range of vitamins and nutrients is a solid bet for better health and longevity no matter who you are.
Food, Calories and Dieting
For women in particular, weight management has long been a high priority. Societal reason for this aside, there are a few fundamental differences between men and women that could mean women should focus their dietary attention in specific areas so you can be sure you’re eating the best diet for your health.
Let’s start with calories. The Office of Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that the number of calories a woman needs is based on a variety of factors including:
— Physical activity level.
— Other factors, such as whether you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or have certain chronic health issues like diabetes.
On average, women typically need to consume fewer calories than men because they tend to be smaller. However, that’s a very broad generalization, and a tall or very active woman might need significantly more calories to fuel her day than a small, sedentary man.
When it comes to calories, you have to assess the whole of your situation, not just your sex. You can calculate your caloric and nutritional needs using the MyPlate program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nutrients for Women
Beyond calories, there are a few nutrients that women need to be aware of. “Women have some higher needs for certain nutrients based on body functions specific to the female gender,” says Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Women may need to focus specifically on the following five nutrients to ensure they’re getting enough of them for good health:
The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements reports that iron is a key component to making hemoglobin and myoglobin — proteins in red blood cells — and muscle tissues that help transport oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body. Iron is also important in the creation of hormones that keep body functions in check.
The ODS recommends that adult women ages 19 to 50 years of age consume 18 milligrams of iron each day. Compare that to adult men in the same age bracket who are advised to consume 9 milligrams of iron each day. That’s because “women lose blood and iron with their periods up until menopause.” As such, “their iron needs are greater starting in their teenage years,” Weinandy says.
Pregnant women need even more iron — 27 milligrams per day to help support the growing baby, and specifically the formation of the blood cells to support the fetus and build its own circulatory system. After the baby is born, you’ll need less iron — the ODS recommends that breastfeeding women consume 9 milligrams of iron per day.
Iron is found naturally in many foods, including lean meat, seafood and poultry. People who don’t eat much or any meat, namely vegetarians or vegans, may find it more difficult to get enough iron in their diets, as this mineral is found in abundance in animal products, but is less available in plant-based foods. Fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and breads can help. Beans, lentils, peas, nuts and some dried fruits are also good sources of iron that don’t involve animal products.
The ODS notes that calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, as it forms the basis of bones and teeth and also plays a critical role in muscle and vascular function, nerve transmission and hormone signaling. It’s also used by cells to communicate with each other.
The ODS recommends that adult women aged 19 to 50 years consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. (Pregnant and breastfeeding teens are advised to consume 1,300 milligrams of calcium daily to support their own and the fetus’ growing bodies.)
Women between the ages of 51 and 70 are advised to consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily. That’s because consuming enough calcium can help stave off osteoporosis, a thinning of the bones that typically occurs with age. Osteoporosis is more common among women, although men can develop it too. Women tend to have smaller, thinner bones than men to begin with, and after menopause, levels of the hormone estrogen fall. Estrogen is protective of bones, and this is why risk of developing osteoporosis increases in women post menopause.
“Women are more likely to break a bone as they age, so getting enough calcium is important. This is especially true if a woman has had children because pregnancy requires an increase in many nutrients including calcium,” Weinandy says.
Vitamin D helps the body metabolize calcium in the foods we eat. If you’re not getting enough vitamin D, it can lead to soft, thin bones. In children, this condition is called rickets. In adults, too little vitamin D can also cause a softening of the bones and contribute to the development of osteoporosis. Vitamin D also supports muscle function and the immune system.
Adults of both sexes aged 19 to 70 years are recommended to consume 15 micrograms of vitamin D each day, as should pregnant and breastfeeding women. Adults over age 71 should aim a little higher for 20 micrograms of vitamin D per day.
You can make your own vitamin D when your skin is exposed to direct sunlight, but you can also get it from a few foods. Fatty fish like salmon, beef liver, mushrooms, egg yolks and vitamin D-fortified milk all contain varying amounts of vitamin D.
[READ: Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency.]
Magnesium is also important in helping the bones absorb calcium to keep them strong. The Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Dietary Allowances table states that women ages 19 to 30 need 310 milligrams of magnesium per day and women aged 31 and older should consume 320 milligrams per day. Leafy green vegetables, broccoli, summer squash, seeds, celery and halibut are all good sources of magnesium.
“Magnesium needs also change during pregnancy and lactation,” says Marysa Cardwell, a nutrition therapist and contributing dietitian to Lose It!, a free calorie-counting app. Therefore, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor or midwife about your magnesium needs.
Cardwell also notes that “your needs may be higher if you have chronic stress, consume higher levels of alcohol or are on a medication that makes you lose magnesium.”
In addition, there’s some evidence that consuming the right amounts of magnesium could help you sleep better, which is good for overall health and wellness for women and men.
Folic acid, also called folate, is a type of B vitamin that’s integral to the formation of new cells. It’s also critical to a healthy pregnancy and fetal development, so “women who may get pregnant should get much more folic acid than men to prevent neural tube defects in the baby,” Weinandy says.
The ODS recommends that women consume at least 400 micrograms of folate every day from age 14 onward, which is the same recommendation for men. However, during pregnancy, that recommendation rises to 600 micrograms. When breastfeeding, you should consume at least 500 micrograms of folic acid each day.
It can be difficult to get so much folic acid from the foods you eat, so many pregnant women are advised to take prenatal vitamins that boost levels of this nutrient. These supplements also typically contain iron, magnesium and other nutrients pregnant women may need more of to support a growing fetus.
Folic acid is found naturally in dark leafy green veggies, fruit, eggs, meat and dairy products as well as in fortified foods such as rice, bread, pasta and breakfast cereals.
Healthy Eating for a Lifetime
Beyond focusing on those specific nutrients, it’s important to eat a wide range of healthy foods in reasonable portions across your entire lifetime.
Despite all the fad diets that are routinely marketed to and targeted towards women, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health notes that eating healthfully does not mean skipping meals or limiting yourself to organic, gluten-free or enriched foods. It’s the overall pattern of eating that you should be looking at, and the name of the game is balance.
Weinandy adds that “there’s no scientific evidence to show one diet is better than another depending on gender.” However, if you’re trying to lose weight, “eating fewer calories and moving more are the keys to weight loss in both men and women.”
“While women may need some nutrients like iron and calcium in larger amounts than men, the basic overall eating pattern that is healthiest for women is also healthiest for men,” Weinandy says.
Put simply: “Eating a variety of foods from all five food groups and minimizing highly processed foods,” is your best option, she says.
More from U.S. News