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Diet and Nutrition
Frequently Asked Questions
How do nutritional needs and diets change for women across their lifespans?
What is a healthy diet?
What weight is considered obese or overweight?
Where can I find more information about nutrition and diet for the female athlete?
How can I determine how much fat is okay to eat daily and have a healthy diet?
Are dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals important in maintaining a healthy diet?
There are many weight-loss programs; how do you know which ones are safe and successful?
Should I take vitamins or other dietary supplements?
How much calcium do women need?
How do you get enough calcium without too many calories and fat?
Do I need to take an iron supplement?
Q. How do nutritional needs and diets change for women across their lifespans?
A. The effects of a woman's diet on her children start long before she becomes pregnant. Stores of fat, protein, and other nutrients built up over the years are called upon during pregnancy for fetal nourishment. During adolescence and early adulthood, women need to increase food rich in calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass to reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis, a progressive loss of bone with aging that causes bones to be more susceptible to fracture. All women need more iron than men since younger women lose iron through menstruation. Caloric intake varies for each person based on age, gender, and activity level, but for the most part, women between 23 and 50 should eat about 2,200 calories per day to maintain their current weight, while older women need fewer calories. No one should consumer fewer than 1,500 calories, even in attempts to lose weight, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA recommends that everyone maintain healthy levels of fat and fiber intake through out their adult lives.
Q. What is a healthy diet?
A. The United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have jointly issued a complete report on a healthy diet titled "Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans" and "Food Guidelines for Americans". Healthy diets follow the food guide "pyramid," which recommends 6-11 servings of complex carbohydrates, 2-3 servings each of fruits and vegetables,1-2 servings each of dairy products and proteins like meat, tofu, or beans, and sparing use of added fats and sugars. In addition, the "Five A Day" Campaign is a national effort to get Americans to eat at least five servings combined from the fruit and vegetable groups per day.
Q. What weight is considered obese or overweight?
A. The words obesity and overweight are generally used interchangeably. However, according to the Institute of Medicine report, their technical meanings are not identical. Overweight refers to an excess of body weight that includes all tissues, such as fat, bone and muscle. Obesity refers specifically to an excess of body fat. It is possible to be overweight without being obese, as in the case of a body builder who has a substantial amount of muscle mass. It is possible to be obese without being overweight, as in the case of a very sedentary person who is within the desirable weight range but who nevertheless has an excess of body fat. However, most overweight people are also obese and vice versa. Men with more than 25 percent and women with more than 30 percent body fat are considered obese. The USFDA has released a chart detailing recommended weights relative to height; women should be in the lower end of their appropriate weight range, according to the chart.
Q. Where can I find more information about nutrition and diet for the female athlete?
A. Although there are few governmental sources of information on this topic, try searching Healthfinder to access government-selected (though not necessarily endorsed) information sources.
Q. How can I determine how much fat is okay to eat daily and have a healthy diet?
A. Your personal 'fat allowance' depends on how many calories you take in each day. Remember, the total fat in your diet should average no more than 30 percent of your calories, and saturated fat should be no more than 10 percent. The total fat and saturated fat grams you should eat depends on how many calories you consume each day. Check food labels to find out the number of fat grams (total and saturated) in each serving. (See table below)
|1500 Total Calories:
|| 50 Total Fat* (in grams)
|| 15 Saturated Fat** (in grams)
|1800 Total Calories:
||60 Total Fat* (in grams)
||18 Saturated Fat** (in grams)
|2000 Total Calories:
||65 Total Fat* (in grams)
||20 Saturated Fat** (in grams)
|2500 Total Calories:
||80 Total Fat* (in grams)
|| 25 Saturated Fat** (in grams)
* Amounts are equal to 30 percent of total calories (rounded down to the nearest 5); the recommendation is to eat this much or less.
** Amounts are equal to 9 percent of total calories; the recommendation is to eat less than 10 percent of total calories as saturated fat. Each gram of fat is equal to 9 calories.
Q. Are dietary supplements such as vitamins and minerals important in maintaining a healthy diet?
A. Dietary supplements have been prescribed by physicians to correct nutrient deficiencies diagnosed. However, it has not been established that large amounts of vitamins and minerals as dietary supplements will help prevent or treat health problems or slow the aging process. Daily multivitamin tablets may be beneficial to some people, but the value of the supplement is dependent on many factors, including eating habits and overall health. While some supplements only contain some of the identified nutrients important to health, a well-balanced diet provides all the necessary nutrients. Large amounts of some supplements may actually upset the natural balance of nutrients that the body maintains. If you have illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or arthritis, you should check with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter dietary supplements.
Q. There are many weight-loss programs; how do you know which ones are safe and successful?
A. Almost any of the commercial weight-loss programs can work, but only if they motivate you sufficiently to decrease the amount of calories you eat or increase the amount of calories you burn each day (or both). A responsible and safe weight-loss program should be able to document for you the five following features:
The diet should be safe, including all of the recommended daily allowances for vitamins, minerals and protein and low-calorie, not low in essential foodstuffs;
The program should be directed toward a slow, steady weight loss unless your doctor feels your particular health condition would benefit from more rapid weight loss. Expect to lose only about a pound a week after the first week or two.
If you plan to lose more than 15-20 pounds, have any health problems, or take medication on a regular basis, you should be evaluated by your doctor before beginning a weight-loss program. Your physician should also be able to advise you on the need for weight loss, the appropriateness of the program you have in mind, and a sensible weight loss goal for you.
The program should include plans for weight maintenance after the loss phase is over. It should include help in permanently changing your dietary habits and level of physical activity to alter a lifestyle that may have contributed to weight gain in the past.
A commercial weight-loss program should provide a detailed statement of fees and costs of additional items such as dietary supplements.
Q. Should I take vitamins or other dietary supplements?
A. The Federal Government's approach to dietary intervention, formulated by boards composed of nutrition scientist, generally does not recommend supplementing the typical American diet with vitamins or nutrients beyond the recommended daily allowances (RDAs), nor does it suggest that some foods never be eaten. In contrast, many alternative dietary approaches contend that no amount of manipulation of the typical American diet is enough to promote optimum health or prevent eventual chronic illness.
These alternative approaches represent a continuum of philosophies ranging from the concept that supplementing the typical American diet somewhat beyond the RDAs is necessary to promote optimum health, to the idea that supplementation well beyond the RDAs is often required to reverse the effects of long-term deficiencies. Other approaches advocate drastic dietary modification, either eliminating or adding certain types of foods or macronutrients, to treat specific types of conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Finally, there is the view that certain major staples of typical American diet, such as meat and dairy products, are basically unhealthy and should be generally avoided.
There is a growing body of data supporting the notion that the RDAs for minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, may be too low and that supplementation may be necessary to prevent the onset of chronic diseases. In addition, the RDAs for a number of vitamins and micronutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, folate, and beta-carotene, may not be adequate to prevent chronic illness. For example, recent studies have found that the RDA for folate may need to be doubled for women as well as men.
The FDA has said that a well-balanced diet will usually meet women's allowances for vitamins and minerals. (See Recommended Dietary Allowances.) However, for good health, women need to pay special attention to two minerals, calcium and iron.
Q. How much calcium do women need?
A. Both women and men need enough calcium to build peak (maximum) bone mass during their early years of life. Low calcium intake appears to be one important factor in the development of osteoporosis, a disease in which bone density decreases and leads to weak bones. Women have a greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis.
Therefore, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood, women should increase their food sources of calcium. According to one FDA spokesperson, the most important time to get a sufficient amount of calcium is while bone growth and consolidation are occurring, a period that continues until approximately age 30 to 35. The idea is, if you can build a maximum peak of calcium deposits early on, this may delay fractures that occur later in life.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium for woman 19 to 24 is 1,200 milligrams per day. For women 25 and older, the allowance drops to 800 milligrams, but that is still a significant amount, says Stephenson. "The need for good dietary sources of calcium continues throughout life," she says.
Q. How do you get enough calcium without too many calories and fat?
A. Dairy products are powerhouses of calcium, but they needn't be high-fat. Use 1 percent or skim milk instead of whole milk or cream, and choose from lower fat cheeses, yogurts, frozen yogurts, and ice cream substitutes.
In addition to dairy foods, other good sources of calcium include salmon, tofu (soybean curd), certain vegetables (for example, broccoli), legumes (peas and beans), calcium-enriched grain products, lime-processed tortillas, seeds, and nuts.
Q. Do I need to take an iron supplement?
A. For women, the RDA for iron is 15 milligrams per day, 5 milligrams more than the RDA for men. Women need more of this mineral because they lose an average of 15 to 20 milligrams of iron each month during menstruation. Without enough iron, iron deficiency anemia can develop and cause symptoms that include pallor, fatigue and headaches.
After menopause, body iron stores generally begin to increase. Therefore, iron deficiency in women over 50 may indicate blood loss from another source, and should be checked by a physician.
Animal products--meat, fish and poultry--are good and important sources of iron. In addition, the type of iron, known as heme iron, in these foods is well absorbed in the human intestine.
Dietary iron from plant sources, called non-heme, are found in peas and beans, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, potatoes, and whole-grain and iron-fortified cereal products. Although non-heme iron is not as well absorbed as heme iron, the amount of non-heme iron absorbed from a meal is influenced by other constituents in the diet. The addition of even relatively small amounts of meat or foods containing vitamin C substantially increases the total amount of iron absorbed from the entire meal.
This information was abstracted from fact sheets including those developed by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Aging, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of Alternative Medicine of the Department of Health and Human Services and from the Food and Drug Administration.
All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the U.S. Public Health Service's Office on Women's Health; citation of the sources is appreciated.
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