Is Your Diet Femme Friendly?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Many food products claim to meet women's nutritional health needs. So what do women really need to eat for their health?

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

If you've been down the cereal aisle in the grocery store lately, you've probably seen them -- an increasing array of cereals and nutrition bars made especially for women's nutritional health. There's even a new bottled water on the shelves that purports to supply nutrients aimed at relieving symptoms of menopause, promoting bone health, and supplementing other nutritional needs of women.

Are these products really any better for women than others, or is this perhaps just clever marketing?

While men's and women's nutritional health needs are largely the same, says Sarah H. Short, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at Syracuse University in New York, some women have real nutritional concerns relating to anemia, reproductive health, bone health, and menopause that are of far less concern to men.

But many of these can be addressed simply with a daily multivitamin, she says. Of course, all nutritionists want to encourage people to get their needs met through their diet, but we realize that isn't always realistic, says Short.

Marketers and companies that make products are very aware of the fact that women in general tend to be more concerned about health than men, and they look at that trend with a self-interested eye, says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health.

To the extent that these products make people think about what their bodies need, that may be an overall positive thing, says Kava.

Here's what a woman looks for on nutrition labels to make sure her diet is femme friendly.

Iron and Vitamin C

Since women lose about 15 to 20 milligrams of iron each month during menstruation, iron is vital. In fact, women's recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron is 15 milligrams per day, 5 milligrams more than for men, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Iron, folate, and vitamin B-12 are needed to make red blood cells, but only 15% of iron is absorbed in a regular diet, says Birgid Hopkins, PhD, director of sports medicine at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. If you're on a strict vegetarian diet, however, you may need B vitamins along with iron.

Eat some vitamin C with your iron-bearing food -- red meat; potatoes; green, leafy vegetables -- and the amount of iron you absorb goes way up.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Women's bone health is all about calcium and vitamin D intake early in life, but many girls and young women don't get enough of these, leaving them at-risk for osteoporosis decades later.

Calcium builds strong bones, but it isn't absorbed well without vitamin D, says Hopkins, Our bodies make vitamin D though contact with sunlight, and a few foods have D added to them, but some older women may need to supplement D.

The RDA for calcium for women 19 to 24 is 1,200 milligrams per day, according to the National Academy of Sciences For women 25 and older, the allowance is 800 milligrams. Along with low-fat dairy foods, salmon, tofu, broccoli, and peas and beans are good sources of calcium.

Folic Acid and Vitamin B-12

Women who even think they might become pregnant at any point in their lives need folate, or folic acid, says Short. Sufficient folic acid can vastly reduce a woman's risk of bearing a child with certain spinal and neurological defects.

But these defects form very early in a pregnancy. So getting enough folic acid -- a manmade form of folate -- is important to any woman of childbearing age. Before pregnancy, a woman needs 400 micrograms daily; during pregnancy, 600 micrograms are needed. Food manufacturers now fortify enriched-grain products with folic acid, but other good sources of it include liver, collard greens, citrus fruits, dried beans, and peas, to name a few.

There is some research that links folic acid consumption to better heart health, says Short. It can lower levels of homocysteine in the blood, a marker of heart disease.

What About Soy?

Many of the new women's food products in the stores contain soy protein and soy isoflavones.

Soy can be made into a very good protein, and if you have enough of it, soy protein can be helpful in lowering cholesterol for both men and women, says Kava. But there is no evidence that soy protein has any benefit for menopausal women.

Kava says that soy isoflavones are a form of phytoestrogen. The idea behind adding isoflavones to food is that it has mild estrogen-like effects and thereby minimizes symptoms of menopause and decreases the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis.

Again, these claims are highly speculative at this point, says Kava. If you like soy products, enjoy them, but it is too early to say whether soy isolates will offer the kinds of protections that marketers like to throw around.

John Casey is a freelance writer in New York City.

Published March 17, 2003.

SOURCES: Sarah Short, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition, Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y. Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition, American Council on Science and Health. Birgid Hopkins, PhD, director of sports medicine, Merrimack College, North Andover, Mass. FDA web site.

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