Healthy eating for women

Women need the same nutrients men do – and perhaps more of some depending on your age. Yet, because women are generally smaller and less active than men, they likely need fewer calories to deliver those nutrients!  That means that women should focus on ‘nutrient-dense’ foods which offer plenty of vitamins and minerals, as opposed to calorie dense foods, which offer more fat and energy.  Different nutrients also become more important at different stages in the life cycle.  Read on to learn about some of the most important nutrients:

Iron deficiency in young women
Iron deficiency is a condition where your body is not getting enough iron, leading to abnormally low levels of red blood cells. One of the common causes of iron deficiency in young women is iron loss during the menstrual cycle. You can compensate for the iron loss by focusing on an iron rich diet. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for iron in women is 18 mg daily.  There are two types of iron that you can find in foods:  haem and non-haem iron. 
Haem iron is the most easily absorbed type of iron and is mostly in animal based foods e.g. meat, poultry, seafood and fish. 

Here are some foods rich in haem iron:

Serving suggestion 
Amount of iron (mg)
Braised beef liver
Broiled lean sirloin
Broiled lean ground beef
Skinless chicken, roasted, dark meat
Skinless chicken, roasted, white meat
Roasted lean pork
Canned salmon with bones

The non-haem iron is not readily absorbed by the body.  It is mostly found in plant-based foods (e.g. grains, beans, vegetables and fruits). But all is not lost!  You can still have enough iron from plant based foods by eating these foods with foods that are rich in vitamin C.  Vitamin C helps to increase the absorption of the iron.  Alternatively, combining these foods with food containing haem iron also helps to enhance their absorption.  

Folic acid and pregnancy
During pregnancy your body needs a lot of different micro and macro-nutrients to help with the development of your baby and the protection your health. One of the essential micronutrients is folic acid. It plays an important role in producing new body cells, and helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects e.g. spina bifida during child birth. 
As a mother to be, your daily requirement for folic acid is between 400 - 600 µg. Here are some foods that are naturally a source of folic acid:

Serving suggestion
Folic acid (µg)
Boiled spinach
½ cup
Boiled navy beans
½ cup
Wheat germ
¼ cup
½ unit
1 unit
Dry roasted peanuts
28 g
Shredded romaine lettuce
½ cup

Because this is one of the most important nutrients  required during your pregnancy,  you may want to consider using a folic acid supplement before you fall pregnant and during your pregnancy.  For advice on the type and dosage of your supplement, you can consult your doctor or a registered dietitian. 

Bone health and the elderly 
As we grow older, we want to take the best possible care of our bodies. As you age your bones tend to lose mass and density. This is because your body produces less oestrogen over time, and as a result your need for calcium increases. In the first year of menopause alone an average women losses between 3-5% of bone mass and 1% each year after the age of sixty-five. 
To reduce the rate of bone mass loss there are three basic things you can do:

1. Increase your calcium intake
For women aged fifty-one and above the recommended daily allowance set by the Institute of Medicine is 1200 mg of calcium per day. A glass (250ml) of low fat milk contains about 317 mg of calcium. Excessive alcohol, smoking, caffeine and salt intake can increase urinary loss of calcium. 
Here are some dairy products and their average calcium contents.  Aim to have 3 to 4 servings per day. 

Serving suggestion
Calcium content (mg)
Plain low fat yoghurt
1 cup
Low fat/ fat free milk
1 cup
Chocolate milk 1%
1 cup
Low fat Swiss cheese
28 g
Cheddar cheese
28 g
Frozen yoghurt
½ cup
Cottage cheese
½ cup

2. Increase your Vitamin D intake 
Vitamin D encourages the absorption of calcium in the body and helps absorb minerals in bones and teeth.  We need 15 µg of vitamin D each day when we reach the age fifty-one and above.  A glass (250ml) of low fat milk gives us 2.9 µg. Here are some common food sources of vitamin D: 

Serving suggestion
 Vitamin D (µg)
Canned salmon with bones
85 g
Fortified ready to eat cereal
28 g
Fortified orange juice
½ cup
Shiitake mushroom
½ cup

You can also get vitamin D from the sun!  Your body can make vitamin D from ultraviolet light or the sunlight, even on a cloudy day. 

3. Engage in regular weight bearing exercise 
When you engage in exercise such as weight training, walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, and dancing you reduce the risk of bone mass loss. 

Increasing your calcium and vitamin D intake, combined with regular weight bearing exercise,  doesn’t only reduce the risk of bone mass loss, but also reduces the risk of osteopenia/osteoporosis and fractures. 

Did you know?
Pick n Pay is committed to promoting health and wellbeing among South Africans, and employs a Registered Dietitian to provide free nutrition-related advice to the public.  Contact Leanne Kiezer via the Pick n Pay Health Hotline on 0800 11 22 88 or to start your nutrition conversation.

You can also visit to find a dietitian in your area who is registered with the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).