We know how nutrition plays a large role in a healthy lifestyle. For women, it plays an even bigger role as their bodies undergo many more changes whether it is puberty, pregnancy, or menopause. From the peer pressure of adolescence to the hot flashes of menopause, women’s nutrition can shape a young adult’s lifestyle and can help prevent problems for older ones. Let’s look at the important milestones in the female lifecycle and the role nutrition plays in each part.
Adolescence [12 – 19yrs]
Magazines, movies, advertisements, and peers have the strongest influence on this age group. During adolescence, playing outside gives way to studying for long hours at a desk. If you have an adolescent daughter, you’ll be all too familiar with this. Many a night is spent preparing for competitive exams or chatting with friends on the phone. For the female adolescent, this is a time of major change, both physically and mentally.
A sudden rapid growth occurs as an adolescent enters puberty—the process of physically developing from a child to an adult. Many adolescents feel uncomfortable with their rapidly changing bodies. This can lead them to manipulate their diets in hopes of changing the way they look.
Although nutritional requirements increase during adolescence to support physical growth, lifestyle may have a major negative impact on food choices, which may eventually affect future growth and health. Thus, it is important for you as parents to focus on healthy food choices, not categorise foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and not focus on the bodily changes your daughters are going through during this time.
Nutritional requirements during adolescence should focus primarily on growth.
- As growth rates accelerate during the first phase of adolescence, it is important to ensure that calorie needs are adequately met. However, with childhood obesity on the rise in India and puberty causing more fat tissue gain in girls, it is important to keep young females active as well.
- Avoid bringing junk food [chips, biscuits, chocolate, high sugar juices, and soft drinks] home.
- Avoid frying foods and using large amounts of oil in cooking. The general rule is 2 teaspoons of oil per person per day.
- Encourage eating fresh fruits, raw vegetables, and fat-free milk as snacks
- Limit TV watching time to one hour daily and encourage your teenager to stay active, either through a recreational dance class or yoga/aerobics classes.
- Until age 12, calorie needs increase for young girls. At peak levels, they can reach 2,550 calories per day. [Note: Average active 18 year-old male [height: 5’8″, weight: 70 kg] needs approximately 1,800 calories.]
- Calorie needs decline during age 13-18. Energy needs are best calculated based on height during adolescent years. An estimated range for females between 11-18 years of age is 10-19 calories/cm height.
With a large population of Indian families being vegetarians and many young girls following the footsteps of Kareena Kapoor taking to vegetarianism, protein requirements in some cases fall short. The daily protein recommendation for adolescents is 0.3 g/cm height. For instance, a 5’2″tall adolescent girl needs approximately 47g of protein. This can come from 4 whole wheat phulkas/thin rotis; 2 cups [500ml] slim/fat-free milk;1 katori [? cup] dal; 1 katori [? cup] sprouts; 2 eggs; 2 katoris [1 cup] green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin and mineral requirements
Calcium: As 45 per cent of the skeletal mass gets added during puberty and adolescence, a woman’s calcium needs are greater at this time than her childhood or adult years. The recommended daily intake is approximately 1,300mg for adolescents. Adding low fat milk to soups instead of water is a good way to add calcium in their daily diet. You can also cook morning oatmeal in low fat milk or make methi or palak rotis [green, leafy vegetables are a good source of calcium]. As a parent, you can ensure that the intake of caffeinated beverages [coffee, tea, and soft drinks] is minimal. Caffeine increases the excretion of calcium in the urine.
Iron: Iron deficiency—anaemia is prevalent in adolescents due to low intake of iron-rich foods and increased growth spurt. Adolescent females require 1.3 mg/day iron on an average to replace the iron loss during menstruation. The quickest way is to make iron-rich foods a part of their meals. So, add dried figs or raisins to salads and pureed soft tofu to soups or use spinach in the dal. Remember, a deficiency of iron may cause an impaired immune response.
Zinc: Zinc is essential for sexual maturation and growth in adolescents. As most food sources of zinc are non-vegetarian, vegetarian teenagers are likely to be deficient in zinc. Although the research done in this regard is limited, evidence shows that adolescents with low zinc levels have increased problems with acne. Give your daughter a multi-vitamin or mineral complex supplement daily to keep her zinc levels to the optimum.
Vitamins: Almost all the B vitamins play a major role in the release of energy from foods. Therefore, for appropriate growth they need to be consumed more. Increased amounts of Vitamin D are also needed to support bone growth. Vitamin A [found in all orange and yellow fruits and vegetables], vitamin C [found in citrus fruits and red bell pepper], and vitamin E [almonds and pistachio nuts] are needed for cell growth.
Early adult years [ 20s and 30s]
The early adult years for women are ones with high demands from home or office and in many cases, from both. These years are full of social events like weddings, parties, receptions and work-related events and alcohol, fried foods, and sweets are definitely part of the menu. Nutrition during this period should focus on continuing and promoting a healthy lifestyle to prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease that are so common today. If you want to manage weight, do it by making small decreases in food and beverage calories and by increasing physical activity.
- Consume less than 10 per cent calories from saturated fatty acids and less than 300 mg/day of cholesterol, and keep your trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible.
- Keep your total fat intake between 20 and 35 per cent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
- Reduce your oil usage. The general rule is 2 teaspoons of oil per day so start cooking in non-stick cookware. Opt for steaming, grilling, and baking foods instead of frying them.
- Opt for making and buying low-fat or fat-free milk products like yogurt. Consume three servings per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt [1 serving = approximately 200ml].
- Limit your intake of fats and oils high in saturated and/or trans fatty acids, such as butter, ghee, coconut or palm oils, margarine, and Dalda.
- Have fibre-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Consume 3 or more servings [1 serving = approximately 28g] of whole-grain products per day. You can have bajra or jowar rotis, all bran whole-wheat flakes and brown rice or Kerala red rice.
- Fruits and vegetables are filled with vitamins and minerals and provide adequate amount of fibre.
- Select from all five vegetable subgroups [dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables] several times a week.
- Add vegetables to your breakfast like upma and sambar.
- Start your meal with a salad.
- Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners.
- Avoid eliminating the starch food group completely from your diet. These foods are high in fibre and give a satiated feeling that lasts long. They are also the primary energy source for the brain and muscles.
Sodium and potassium
- Consume less than 2,300mg [approximately one teaspoon of salt] of sodium per day.
- Eat foods with little salt. Limit or avoid pickles, chutneys, and processed foods.
- At the same time, consume potassium-rich foods like bananas, potatoes with skin and mushrooms.
Women who drink alcoholic beverages should do so in moderation [up to one drink per day]. One drink serving size is defined as: for wine 145ml makes 1 serving which has approximately 125kcals; for beer 350ml makes 1 serving which has approximately 150kcals; for distilled alcoholic beverages—whiskey, rum, gin, vodka— 45ml makes 1 serving which has about 100kcals.Note: Kcals = calories; 100 kcals also equals 2 phulkas/ small, thin rotis + ? cup sabzi + 1 cup salad.
Pre-menopause and menopause [40 – 50]
Menopause is the point in a woman’s life when she has not had a menstrual period for one year due to the progressive decline of oestrogen production. Menopause marks the end of childbearing years. For most women, menopause happens around age 50. There are cases where menopause occurs in one’s 30s and 40s.
Pre-menopause is the process of change that leads to menopause. It can start as early as late 30s or as late as your early 50s. How long a perimenopause or pre-menopause lasts varies from woman to woman, but it usually lasts from 2-8 years.
Although remedies as far as nutrition is concerned are few and far between for the signs and symptoms of pre menopause, it is especially important to treat your body well during this time to avoid possible problems during menopause.
Menopause brings with it an increased risk of:Heart disease due to the lack of oestrogen, the female hormone that has a protective effect on the heart.
- Keep your calorie intake within limits to avoid gradual weight gain.
- Add heart healthy fats to your diet, such as 1 teaspoon ground up flax seeds to your breakfast cereal and 5-6 raw almonds with your snack.
- Avoid high fat foods such as fried items.
- Keep cholesterol levels within limits by adding food sources of fibre to your diet such as oats, apples, and whole-wheat atta.
Breast cancer is another condition to which your risk increases in the case of late menopause [after age 55].
- Avoid weight gain; focus on high fibre starches [e.g. ragi rotis] fruits [apples and pears], and vegetables [raw carrots]
- Avoid excessive alcohol use; no more than 1 glass of wine [145ml] per week
- Ensure that you receive adequate amounts of folate [0.4mg/day; food sources = spinach, broccoli, Chinese bok choy] and vitamin D [400-800 IU/day; food sources = cheese and egg yolks].
Osteoporosis, is a high possibility due to the lack of oestrogen secretion.
- Increase your intake of calcium from 800mg/day during pre menopause to 1,000mg/day after menopause.
- Have three servings [200ml = 1 serving] of non-fat or low-fat milk or yogurt along with a minimum 500mg calcium supplement per day.
A woman’s body undergoes immense changes throughout her life cycle. Nutrition is key in ensuring maximum growth during adolescent years and minimum risk of diseases during adult life.
So ladies, make that healthy change—drink Tetra packed fat-free milk instead of full-fat buffalo milk, add a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to your meals, and switch your sandwich bread to whole wheat from white!