During various life stages such as pregnancy or menopause, women have unique nutritional needs. While a healthy diet is important for everyone – women can optimise their nutrition to support health and well-being during these different times of life.
So, what does a healthy diet for women look like?
The downfall of many meals is that they’re lacking in protein, which is often the reason they don’t keep you full for very long.
Protein is vital for the growth, repair and maintenance of muscle mass. It also helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer and to curb cravings throughout the day. Plus, it helps to keep your bones strong!
Protein can come from animal and plant-based sources, although it can require more careful attention to ensure you get adequate levels of protein from a plant-based diet. Aim for at least 60g of protein a day, which you can get from sources such as meat, poultry, eggs, fish, cottage cheese, ricotta, tempeh, tofu, lentils or edamame beans.
Processed foods tend to be high in trans fats, have emulsifiers that can upset your gut and often contain significant levels of sweeteners, starch and refined carbohydrates. Some examples include store-bought biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies and processed meats.
A 2019 randomised controlled trial took 20 healthy adults and split them into two groups; the first group followed a diet of ultra-processed foods for two weeks, followed by two weeks of unprocessed foods and the second group did the opposite.
The meals provided to both groups were matched in terms of calories, energy density, macronutrients, sugar, sodium and fibre – each volunteer was advised to eat as much, or as little, as they wanted.
Interestingly, calorie intake was significantly higher (up to 500 calories) on days when the participants were given ultra-processed foods. On average, the subjects gained 0.9kg on an ultra-processed diet and lost 0.9kg eating an unprocessed diet, over the course of the two weeks.
The conclusion drawn from this study was that limiting the intake of ultra-processed foods may help to prevent, and treat, obesity.
The easiest way to avoid processed foods is to cook your meals from scratch!
This doesn’t have to mean taking hours out of your day to prepare a healthy meal. There is an abundance of recipes online that are quick and easy to prepare. Many of these recipes use simple ingredients that are often already found in your pantry, fridge or freezer. By cooking meals yourself, you can ensure that you know exactly what you’re eating!
Alcohol is high in sugar, which can negatively impact your teeth, waistline and brain. One drink can contribute an additional 200 calories (or more) to your day. If you’re not doing lots of exercise, those excess calories will end up being stored around your middle – and may contribute to visceral fat in your liver and pancreas; increasing the risk of developing raised blood sugars and type 2 diabetes (among other issues).
Alcohol stimulates nerves in your hypothalamus (a part of the brain) which can increase appetite. In particular, a peptide called galanin is triggered with the consumption of alcohol – this peptide has a positive, reciprocal relationship with dietary fat and alcohol. So the more you drink, the more likely you are to crave fatty foods (and more alcohol!).
If alcohol is something you wish to include in your diet, then red wine does have some health benefits if consumed in moderation. Red wine is rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant that has been recognised to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also counters natural clotting factors in the blood, offering some protection against thrombosis and strokes caused by blood clots. In saying that, more than one glass per day can increase your risk of strokes, so remember that moderation is key.
The more colours you have on your plate, the more varied the nutrients! Load up on non-starchy vegetables in a variety of colours, such as beetroot, pumpkin, zucchini, capsicum or tomatoes.
Dark leafy greens, like spinach and kale, contain lots of vitamins and minerals and have both been linked to improved heart health, weight loss and immunity. Cooking veg and adding some olive oil can improve the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and some phytonutrients, supporting good health.
It’s important to get a mix of raw and cooked veg into your day as this will provide maximum nutritional benefits. By eating your veggies raw, you’re preserving the water-soluble vitamins like Bs and C that otherwise get cooked away when heated.
For years, we’ve been told to avoid fats, and people assume that consuming fats means that you will get fat, but we now know that’s not necessarily the case.
Healthy fats, rich in mono and poly-unsaturated will satisfy your taste buds and curb your appetite; slowing the rate at which the stomach empties, delaying its cue to signal for more food. Consuming fats also reduce blood glucose spikes. Find very high levels of monounsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed oils, avocados, nuts and seeds. These foods help your body absorb vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K, and thanks to their anti-inflammatory effect, are beneficial for your skin and joint health.
Like the majority of the population, you’ve likely been conditioned to opt for low-fat products, such as low-fat dairy and butter-like spreads. However, these products are stripped of many nutrients and are often laden with additives and sugar or artificial sweeteners to compensate for the flavour that gets removed in the process of making them fat-free.
A study, carried out by researchers at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, tracked the diets of 20,000 women over a period of 20 years. The study found links between the consumption of full-fat dairy products (milk and cheese) and weight loss. Over a ten-year period, the women who regularly consumed full-fat milk saw a lower BMI (Body Mass Index).
This was backed by another study that followed 1,600 healthy middle-aged men over an 11-year period. The ones that ate butter and drank full-fat milk were half as likely to become obese as those eating low-fat spreads and skimmed milk.
By choosing full-fat options, you’ll be having a more nutrient-dense food, feel fuller for longer and your energy will be more sustained.
Omega 3 may help to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, central obesity, blood pressure, insulin resistance, cholesterol and inflammation. There is also research to suggest that it helps improve mood and increases brain function.
Include oily fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, in your diet on a regular basis. If you don’t like fish or cannot source it, consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement.
Stress has an impact on both physical and mental health; causing exhaustion, irritability and anxiety as well as affecting your gut with bloating and irritable bowel symptoms. High-stress levels will also affect your sleep and your diet choices.
While stress levels generally don’t reduce overnight, taking small steps to manage them is a great starting point. Some strategies include; eating a balanced diet, practising mindfulness, improving your sleep schedule, doing hobbies you enjoy, seeking support from your family and friends, and exercising.
Exercise provides many health benefits such as muscle gain, curbing appetite, improved self-esteem and mental well-being, increased energy and reduced risk of chronic disease, as well as helping to manage weight. Aerobic exercises like walking, jogging or cycling help to reduce visceral fat, and improve heart health.
At age 30, we start losing as much as five per cent of lean muscle mass per year, and the risk of serious injury from falling increases. Regularly including resistance training in your exercise routine can lower your risk of falling by 40 per cent.
Being motivated to start exercising can be difficult for many people, but once you form a routine and start seeing results, you will be hooked. Set yourself reminders, plan your exercise sessions, make it fun by doing it with a friend and start at a level that is right for you. Find an exercise that you enjoy to get moving more; be it going to a gym, dance classes, yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi or something else.
Poor sleep affects every organ in your body, from your brain to your heart, your immune system and even your sex drive. Like stress, sleep has a huge impact on how you’re feeling and what you’re eating. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re much more likely to snack and crave starchy, sweet foods that will give you a quick energy boost.
For a better night’s sleep, try removing electronic devices from the bedroom and stop scrolling or watching TV an hour before you go to bed – the blue light from screens mimics the sun, exciting your brain when it needs to be relaxed for sleep. Instead, read a book or magazine with dimmed lights, listen to some gentle music or follow a guided meditation to prepare yourself for a good sleep.
You could also try Time Restricted Eating (TRE). Finish your last meal of the day at least three hours before you go to bed, then fast for 12, 14 or 16 hours before eating again. If you’re eating too close to bedtime, the increased digestive activity will keep your temperature higher, not signalling to your body that it’s time to snooze.