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Women’s health checklist

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Women's health checklist

Do you know if you’re getting all the nutrients you need? Ever wonder if your cravings are normal? Nutritionist Tracy Morris goes back to basics to look at common health issues faced by women, and your nutritional requirements at every age.

We cover:

  • Top health problems
  • Key nutrients for every age
  • Essential foods to put on your plate

Certain ailments seem to affect women more than men – in large part due to our different hormones. Although they may not be necessarily life threatening, they can be distressing, uncomfortable and just plain disruptive. If, like many New Zealand women, you experience any of these health niggles, there are some foods that can help.

How common are they?

Around 20 per cent of women aged 25 to 33 years old experience irregular periods.

Possible cause

The most common biological cause of irregular periods is a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS occurs when there is a hormonal imbalance, particularly when male hormone levels are raised, which can prevent normal ovulation. When a women’s body doesn’t ovulate normally, it disrupts menstruation, which results in irregular, infrequent or heavy periods.

What can help?

Simple lifestyle changes can noticeably improve PCOS symptoms, including normalising menstruation.

If you are overweight, losing even a small amount of your body weight (five to 10 per cent) can really help. A healthy eating plan – consisting of five to six small meals a day that include plenty of fruit and veg, legumes, low-GI carbohydrates, lean protein, low-fat dairy and some healthy fats – will make a big difference. Incorporating moderate exercise three times a week will also help.

Finally, chat with your gynaecologist about medications such as the contraceptive pill, which can re-balance hormone levels.

How common are they?

Ninety-seven per cent of women report having food cravings, with chocolate topping the list.

Possible causes

Women are far more prone to chocolate cravings than men, but the exact reason why has scientists baffled. Since these cravings often happen just before menstruation, high levels of oestrogen and progesterone are thought to be a possible cause, as they decrease the ‘happy’ hormone, serotonin, resulting in sugar cravings.

Another study suggests that it’s not hormones that are the biggest reason for chocolate cravings but rather the ‘addictive’ psychoactive substances present in chocolate – but experts think this is unlikely. It may simply come down to the perfect combination of fat and sugar in chocolate that makes chocolate so desirable.

What can help?

Be prepared by having healthier choices on hand, so when cravings hit, you can make a healthy choice. Choose a cup of hot chocolate, a small bag of chocolate-coated raisins or a couple of squares of good quality dark chocolate. Savour each mouthful so your brain has time to register that you are satisfied.

How common is it?

Up to 30 per cent of people experience bloating at some point in their lives, with women generally experiencing it more frequently than men.

Possible causes

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common cause of bloating, and is twice as likely to occur in women than men. Bloating can be caused by an overproduction of gas by bacteria in the intestine, either because food is not digested properly (due to a food intolerance) and is being fermented in the large intestine, or because ‘bad’ bacteria have invaded the small intestine.

What can help?

Probiotics have been shown to be effective at reducing IBS symptoms by restoring the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut. If you suspect you have a food intolerance, start a food and symptom diary to see if specific foods are triggering your bloating then speak to your doctor about getting tested for food intolerances.

How common are they?

One in three women will get a urinary tract infection (UTI) in their lifetime.

Possible causes

Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enter the opening of a woman’s urinary tract and work their way up the urethra to the bladder and, if left untreated, eventually reach the kidneys. Women are more prone to UTIs than men, possibly because a woman’s urethra is shorter than a man’s. Hormonal changes and changes in the position of the urethra can make pregnant women more prone to UTIs, which can be serious if untreated.

What can help?

If you get recurrent UTIs, drinking plenty of water every day may help ‘wash away’ the bacteria. There is some evidence that regularly drinking cranberry juice and probiotic drinks can also help prevent UTIs from recurring. Pregnant women who feel a UTI coming on should seek medical attention to prevent harming the baby.

How common are they?

Forty per cent of women experience pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms, which typically include mood swings.

Possible causes

Sudden shifts in female emotions seem to happen around pre-menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, indicating that hormone fluctuations may be responsible. Furthermore, disruptions in calcium metabolism occur during the menstrual cycle, which means a calcium-deficient diet may worsen PMS symptoms.

What can help?

According to a German study, the herbal remedy, Vitex agnus castus (also known as Chasteberry or Monk’s Pepper) may help improve symptoms of irritability and mood changes by at least 30 per cent after three months. Calcium supplements are also supported by strong scientific evidence, but simply meeting the healthy eating guideline of three serves of dairy daily may be enough to prevent PMS-related mood swings.

How common is it?

About 75 per cent of women will have thrush at least once in their lifetime.

Possible causes

A yeast called Candida albicans naturally inhabits our body, but when overgrowth occurs in a women’s vagina, thrush develops. Antibiotics may also promote an overgrowth of yeast. Diets high in sugar have been implicated in causing thrush but the research indicates this only relates to those with poorly-controlled diabetes.

What can help?

Probiotics, which reintroduce ‘friendly’ bugs into the body, have shown promising results in treating and preventing thrush, however, more research is needed. A recent scientific study has also reported daily walks significantly decreased the risk of thrush.

Women with diabetes should aim to keep their blood glucose as close to normal levels as possible so high glucose levels in the blood and urine don’t ‘feed’ the yeast and encourage thrush.

How common are they?

Almost 45 per cent of menopausal-aged women experience hot flushes.

Possible causes

The most common cause is menopause, when the ovaries produce less oestrogen. For reasons that remain unclear, this confuses the body’s central thermostat. In an attempt to ‘cool down’, the heart pumps faster, blood vessels dilate and you start to sweat.

Certain foods such as alcohol, caffeine, spicy food and foods high in amines like red wine, cheese and chocolate can trigger hot flushes.

What can help?

There is some evidence that the herb black cohosh (also sold as Remifemin) may help reduce hot flushes. Evidence for using soy products, a rich source of phytoestrogens, is still inconclusive as trial protocols and results vary. If all else fails, keep a cool drink nearby for emergencies.

The female body goes through remarkable changes during a lifetime, and each new stage brings different nutritional needs.

RDI, AI and SDT explained

  • RDI: The Recommended dietary intake (RDI) is the average daily intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of most healthy people in the specified age and gender group.
  • AI: The Adequate intake (AI) is used when and an RDI cannot be determined. This is the average daily intake of most healthy people in the specified age and gender group based on observations or experiments.
  • SDT: The Suggested dietary target (SDT) is the average daily intake from food and beverages for certain nutrients that may help in prevention of chronic disease.

Note: SDTs are specified only for certain nutrients. Where they are available they tend to be higher (with the exception of sodium) than the RDI. We use SDTs where available.

Growing years (more than nine years old)

Nutrient and RDI, AI or SDT Why it's important Top food sources
CALCIUM
RDI: 1000-1300mg
Bones are growing and needs are high
Many young people don’t get enough
Low calcium increases osteoporosis risk later in life
Low-fat dairy, calcium-fortified soy milk, tofu, fish with edible bones, almonds
VITAMIN D
AI: 5 micrograms (with regular sun exposure, before 11am and after 4pm in summer there is no need for dietary vitamin D)
For growing bones and teeth
Immunity
Sardines, tuna, salmon, eggs
MAGNESIUM
RDI: 240mg for 9-13 years
RDI: 360mg for girls and 410mg for boys 14-18 years
Essential for growth Peas, beans, legumes, Brazil nuts, shellfish

Adults to menopause (18-50 years old)

Nutrient and RDI, AI or SDT Why it's important Top food sources
IRON
RDI: 18mg (27mg during pregnancy, 9mg for non-menstruating breastfeeding women)
(Absorption from vegetarian diets is lower so requirements are up to 80 per cent higher)
Ensures red blood cells can carry oxygen
Immunity
Heavy periods increase needs
Low iron is common in women
Liver, mussels, red meat, fish, chicken, legumes, tofu, pumpkin seeds
FOLATE
RDI: 400 micrograms (600mcg during pregnancy, 500mcg while breastfeeding)
Helps to make red blood cells and enzymes
Helps prevent neural tube defects
Associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease
Broccoli, spinach, wholegrain bread, Marmite, chickpeas, fortified breakfast cereals
PROTEIN Requirements vary
RDI: 0.75g protein per kg of body weight (1.02g during pregnancy; 1.1g during breastfeeding)
Builds muscle, organs, skin, blood
Produces hormones
Meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu, beans, lentils
IODINE
RDI: 150 micrograms (220mcg during pregnancy; 270mcg when breastfeeding)
Produces thyroid hormones which control metabolism
Crucial for brain development during pregnancy and breastfeeding
Seafood, seaweed, iodine-fortified bread, iodised salt
Note: It is recommended that all women who are pregnant or breastfeeding take an iodine supplement containing 150µg each day.
CALCIUM
RDI: 1000mg
Maintains bone health
Involved in neuromuscular and cardiac function
Low-fat dairy, calcium-fortified soy milk, tofu, fish with edible bones, almonds
ZINC
RDI: 8mg (11mcg during pregnancy; 12mcg when breastfeeding)
(Absorption from vegetarian diets is lower so requirements are up to 50 per cent higher)
Immunity and healing
reproduction and growth
Required for the senses, such as taste and smell
Beef, lamb, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, sun-dried tomatoes
VITAMIN C
SDT: 190mg
Antioxidant
Forms collagen (in skin, blood vessels, bones and teeth)
Wound healing
Promotes non-haem iron absorption
Citrus fruits, kiwifruit, papaya, berries, red capsicum, Brussels sprouts, broccoli
CHOLINE
RDI: 425mg (440mg during pregnancy; 550mg when breastfeeding)
Essential for normal cell functioning
Plays a role in memory
Important for brain development during pregnancy and breastfeeding
Eggs, dairy, peanuts, soybeans
OMEGA-3s
SDT: 410mg (for long-chain omega-3s)
Brain function
Heart health
Many potential benefits subject to further evidence
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines
VITAMIN A
SDT: 1220 micrograms
Vision
Immunity
Caution: during pregnancy too much vitamin A is dangerous to the foetus, so avoid liver which is exceptionally rich in
vitamin A
Wweet potato, carrots, spinach, eggs, mango, apricots, reduced-fat cheese
VITAMIN D
AI: 5 micrograms (with regular sun exposure, before 11am and after 4pm in summer, there is no need for dietary vitamin D)
Bones and teeth
Immunity
Sardines, tuna, salmon, eggs
FIBRE
SDT: 28g (AI: 28-30g during pregnancy and breastfeeding)
Helps prevent constipation
General gastrointestinal health
Heart health
Weight management
Wholegrain breads and cereals, fruit, legumes, vegetables, seeds and nuts
WATER
AI: About 8 cups of any fluids (excluding alcohol) in addition to that found in food. (About 9-10 cups during pregnancy and breastfeeding.) Needs increase with higher temperatures and increased activity
All biochemical reaction in our bodies occur in water
Regulates body temperature
Helps prevent constipation
Trim milk, water, tea, fruit, vegetables

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Post-menopause (older than 50 years)

Once oestrogen levels drop, calcium becomes more important to prevent osteoporosis. Findings from a recent University of Auckland study suggest that it’s better to get calcium from dietary sources than from supplements, with the research showing a 30 per cent increased risk of heart attacks in people taking calcium supplements without getting sufficient vitamin D at the same time.

Nutrient and RDI Why it's important Top food sources
CALCIUM
RDI: 1300mg
Less oestrogen means needs increase to reduce risk of osteoporosis Low-fat dairy, calcium-fortified soy milk, tofu, fish with edible bones, almonds
IRON
RDI: 8mg
Iron needs drop once women stop menstruating Liver, red meat, mussels, fish, chicken, legumes, tofu, pumpkin seeds

 

 

 

 


Older years (older than 70 years)

As a woman ages, her body composition changes, affecting her nutritional needs. A loss of protein tissue, mainly from muscle but also from organs and the blood, can result in reduced immunity and an increased risk of infection. Women older than 70 years should aim to eat more protein to help maintain a healthy immune system.

Nutrient and RDI, AI or SDT Why it's important Top food sources
ENERGY (kJ)
Requirements depend on weight, height and physical activity levels
Energy needs decrease with age
Nutrient needs do not decrease
Nutrient-dense foods become even more important
For nutrient-rich energy sources choose wholegrain breads and cereals, low-fat dairy, vegetables and fruit, lean meat, fish and seafood, legumes, seeds and nuts
PROTEIN
RDI: 0.94g of protein per kg of body weight (at 65kg that equals 61g protein)
Immunity
Help maintain muscle mass
Eggs, fish, low-fat dairy foods, beans, lentils, meat, chicken, tofu
RIBOFLAVIN
RDI: 1.3mg
Help release energy from food
Needs appear to be greater as we age
Marmite, liver, trim milk, low-fat yoghurt, almonds, salmon
VITAMIN B6
RDI: 1.5mg
Immunity
Involved in carbohydrate and protein metabolism
Older adults need more chicken, meat, fish, bananas
VITAMIN D
AI: 15micrograms
Food sources contain limited vitamin D so people with little sun exposure may be advised to supplement.
Skin becomes less able to produce vitamin D from the sun
Reduces risk of osteoporosis
Immunity
Sardines, tuna, salmon, eggs

Did you know?

  • You need more energy and nutrients when breastfeeding, than you do when you are pregnant.
  • Around one in 12 women suffers from PCOS – but many of us don’t know we have it. PCOS can cause irregular periods.
  • Many teenage girls aren’t getting enough calcium – which can worsen PMS-related mood
  • swings.
  • Women aged between 18 and 35 have been found to be particularly susceptible to experiencing food cravings.
  • Research suggests that a whopping one in three women will be diagnosed with iron deficiency by 45–50 years of age.
  • Although age can diminish appetite, older women still require as many nutrients as younger women.



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