Everyone intends to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. But because of demanding schedules or lack of planning, we are often unable to achieve that goal on a consistent basis. Women, especially those of child-bearing age or who have young children, are really challenged with providing nutritious meals for themselves and their families. In our hurry to get through the day, we skip meals, don’t have time to cook or grocery shop, and may depend too much on fast food. What’s a girl to do?
Instead of trying to change your entire lifestyle overnight, start with small changes that will build up to better health. You can begin with five nutrients which are often lacking from the diets of young women. Here they are, along with suggestions to improve your intake:
Calcium: Many young women abandon drinking milk after their childhood or teen years, even though milk is one of the richest sources of calcium. Young women need 1000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day,1 and each cup of milk provides about 300 mg. Should you choose not to drink milk because of lactose intolerance or personal preference, other good options are yogurt, low fat cheese, calcium fortified orange juice, tofu made with calcium, dark green leafy vegetables (like broccoli and kale), and fish with edible soft bones (like sardines and canned salmon).
Iron: Because of the monthly blood loss associated with menstruation, young women need to make sure they get enough iron in their diets: 18 mg per day.2 Iron from meat and animal foods (called heme iron) is better absorbed, but some vegetable and enriched grains have non-heme iron which also contributes to the iron supply. Three ounces of cooked beef supplies about 2 mg of iron. Good sources of non-heme iron are iron fortified cereals, lima beans, raisins, and dried apricots.
Fiber: Many young women suffer from constipation or irregularity because they don’t get enough fiber. Young women need about 25 grams of fiber per day.3 Fiber can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals (like oatmeal or bran cereal), whole wheat bread, and brown rice. Getting in five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and a couple of servings of whole grains can usually help you meet your fiber goal.
Folate (Folic Acid): It is very important for women of child-bearing age to get sufficient folic acid (also called folate) in their diet. Pregnant women need 600 micrograms (mcg) per day, while all women and girls aged fourteen or older need 400 mcg per day.4 A deficiency in folic acid has been associated with birth defects, especially problems with the brain and spinal column. Fortunately, many foods have folate, but some of the best sources are organ meats (like liver), lentils, pinto beans, spinach, asparagus, and edamame (soy beans).
Vitamin C: Vitamin C performs many functions in the body. It is an antioxidant and supports wound healing and healthy gums. Many people know that oranges and orange juice supply vitamin C, but other good sources include bell peppers, broccoli, kiwi, and strawberries. Young women need 65-75 mg/day.5
Here is an example of one day’s diet that would supply adequate amounts of calories, nutrients and fiber for young women:
Oatmeal with low fat milk and raisins
Whole wheat toast
Calcium fortified orange juice
Coffee with sugar and creamer
Turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce and tomatoes
Low fat cheese
Whole grain crackers
Grilled meat or fish
Green salad with low fat dressing
1. Institute of Medicine. (1997). Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium, Phosphorous, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Fluoride. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
2. Institute of Medicine. (2001). Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
4. Institute of Medicine. (1998). Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
5. Institute of Medicine. (2000). Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, and Carotenoids. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.