Health Topics

Healthy Living

February 2012
Nutrition For Women At Every Age
Ishi Khosla
Healthy lifestyle, including a well-balanced diet and regular exercise, is the key to optimum health for every woman at every stage of her life. There are several distinct phases in a woman’s life cycle. Puberty and adolescence, pregnancy, lactation and menopause are three distinct stages marked by significant hormonal changes. Associated with it are special nutritional requirements.

Peak growth for girls occurs about one year before menarche (the onset of menstruation). Along with an increased need for calories and proteins, adolescents have higher vitamin and mineral needs too. It is particularly so with iron, calcium and Vitamin A.

Some common conditions associated with adolescence are:

  • Oily skin, acne
  • Dandruff t Weight gain
  • Eating disorders like anorexia
  • Other problems include menstrual cramps, mood swings and nutritional deficiencies
Nutritional needs during adolescence
Food choices also undergo changes, as adolescents seem to be influenced greatly by peer pressure.
  • Acne can be checked if the diet is generally healthy and low in sugar, greasy foods, soft drinks and bakery products.
  • A good intake of vitamin A is believed to be effective.
  • Menstrual cramps can be eased by a healthy diet, exercise and special nutrients and essential fats like gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), Evening Primrose oil (EPO), omega-3 fats (fish, flaxseeds and walnuts) and calcium.
  • Weight or overweight issues with girls should be addressed by increasing physical activity and making healthy food available.
  • A diet based on plenty of vegetables, fruit, low fat dairy products, whole grains, nuts and seeds must be encouraged.
  • Television viewing should be monitored.
Adolescent girls and women upto their 30s are prone to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This is associated with irregular menstrual periods, weight gain, acne, excessive hair growth, thinning of hair on the scalp and infertility.

This a very special time in a woman’s life and calls for special focus on diet, nutrition and eating patterns – some drawn from customs and traditional feeding practices, some from medical advice and some peculiar changes experienced by the woman herself. While a good diet goes a long way in meeting the increased demands during pregnancy, her pre-conception nutritional status is also important. A well-nourished woman can reduce the risk for maternal and foetal complications.
  1. Psychological preparation, education, massage or water therapy in a tub or shower could help. 
  2. Some women like to have someone to support them during labour and birth, such as their husband or mother, sister or a close friend. 
  3. Meditation and mind medicine techniques are also used for pain control during labour and delivery. These techniques are used in conjunction with progressive muscle relaxation, like hypnosis. 
  4. Injecting sterile water injection just underneath the skin in the most painful spots during labour, is another way to reduce pain.
Nutritional needs during pregnancy
  • Increased caloric requirements, which must be met through high nutrient and high fibre foods like whole grains (millets, whole wheat, wheat germ, amaranth, ragi
    and oats), nuts, dry fruits, eggs, fatty fish, skimmed milk, fruits and vegetables. 
  • Protein requirements are also increased marginally (15-20g/day). A well-planned vegetarian diet including pulses, soy, dals, sprouts, low fat milk, yoghurt, tofu,
    nuts and seeds, should be able to meet this requirement. Non-vegetarian women should aim to include at least one to two servings of fatty fish, eggs and lean meats. 
  • Vitamins and minerals are very essential for women at this stage. The most important being iron, calcium, folic acid, zinc and some B-vitamins. 
  • Those suffering from high blood pressure, gestational diabetes or other complications must remain in close contact with their physicians and nutritionists. 
  • Several foods are tabooed during pregnancy due to traditional and cultural beliefs. Check with a qualified dietician about them.
Post Pregnancy Diet

The weight that a woman puts on during pregnancy is nearly all lean tissue and the fat she gains is needed for lactation. Pregnant women lose some weight at delivery and some in the following weeks as the blood volume returns to normal and you get rid of accumulated fluids. Lactation too helps in weight loss.

Very strict dieting is not a good idea during this phase, especially if you are feeding. A gradual weight loss of about ½-1 kg a week is safe, as it does not reduce milk output. Following a well-planned balanced diet along with regular physical activity should help you reach your ideal body weight. Supplement the diet with essential fats, iron,
Vitamin C and calcium rich foods.

This is the time in a woman’s life when her periods (menstruation) eventually stop. The process usually occurs around 45 to 55 years of age. During menopause, fluctuations in estrogen levels can cause symptoms like hot flushes (sudden intense waves of heat and sweating), night sweats, depression, anxiety, forgetfulness, headaches, mood swings, insomnia, vaginal dryness or inflammation, infections, urinary incontinence, difficulty concentrating, weight gain and skin and hair changes.

Nutrients Food Sources
Protein Soy, low fat dairy, lean meat and fish
Essential fatty acids (linoleic and alphalinoleic acid) Fatty fish, flaxseeds, evening primrose oil, organic mustard oil, methi seeds, soybean, and
green leafy vegetables
Vitamin A Fish liver oil, liver,carrot, berries, melons, peppers,broccoli, cabbage, green leafy
vegetables, papaya, mango, tomato and yellow pumpkin
Vitamin C Citrus fruits (orange, lemon), guava, amla (gooseberry), papaya, broccoli, berries and
green leafy vegetables
Vitamin D Exposure to Sun; dietary sources of this vitamin include fortified milk, eggs and fish oil
Vitamin E Vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, soybean), butter, nuts, wheat germ, whole grain cereals, eggs and green leafy vegetables
Selenium Liver, kidney, red meat, seafood, eggs, whole grains, vegetable sources (if grown in soil with enough selenium) are onions, garlic, mushrooms and broccoli
Copper Liver, kidneys, shellfish, nuts, seeds and lentils
Zinc Seafood, meat, poultry and whole grains
Iron Organ meats (liver), poultry, fish and green leafy vegetables including cauliflower greens, mustard greens, radish leaves, amaranth (chaulai), lotus stem, black gram, seaweed, soybean and some dry fruits like dates and sultanas
Calcium Milk and milk products, almonds, ragi, amaranth, broccoli and spinach
Magnesium Whole grains, milk and milk products, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes

Nutritional needs during menopause
A healthy diet rich in whole grains and pulses especially soy, fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy products and nuts and seeds with limited intake of sugar, salt, harmful fats (trans fats) and alcohol is recommended.

Special nutrients that have been found useful include calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, Vitamins B6, B12, E and K, phytoestrogens, essential fats and bioflavonoids.

Before we head to the supplements aisle, take a critical look at your diet. There is no substitute to eating right. A certain level of supplements will be protective while extra may be harmful. I for one believe in judicious use of supplements. Those like folic acid, Vitamin B complex and Vitamin C are particularly useful for prevention of heart disease. Vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc are generally safe provided they are taken under supervision. Vegetarian women, in addition should look at supplements of Vitamin B12 and zinc under qualified practitioners.
Ishi Khosla is a Clinical Nutritionist, and Director – Whole Foods India