On Friday we celebrated International Women’s Day and the theme chosen for this year is Balance Better. When it comes to women’s specific health and nutritional needs, balance is an important concept. According to the World Health Organization, more women are killed by cardiovascular disease than men. Furthermore, the survival rates are lower, with women more likely to die within 5 years of their first heart attack than male counterparts. Today we explore the elements of balance that are critical for women to live long and healthy lives.
Women have different nutritional needs as our bodies change during different stages of life. As girls start to go through puberty they need more vitamin D and calcium to build strong bones. Girls and women experiencing their menstrual cycle will need more iron. Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant will require additional folic acid (folate), omega 3s, iron, calcium and protein to support both the mother and the developing fetus. Breastfeeding mothers will need additional water to support milk production and a healthy diet to ensure that the baby gets the nutrients they need. During menopause women’s estrogen levels drop, increasing the risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, osteoporosis and heart disease. Women at this stage will require additional vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D.
While supplements can be used to address any nutrient deficiencies, the best way to ensure that women get the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and macronutrients they need is to eat from a balanced plate including the following food groups:
Vegetables – a great source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. Dark leafy greens like bhagi and patchoi are a good source of folate and iron. Kale and broccoli are good non-dairy sources of calcium.
Fruits – a source of micronutrients, antioxidants and fiber
Whole grains/ provisions – such as oatmeal and sweet potatoes are complex carbohydrates which fuel the body and provide vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Nuts and seeds – Nuts and seeds provide protein, healthy fats and are also a good source of folate. Of all the nuts, almonds are the highest in calcium.
Protein – Beans and peas are a good source of vegan protein and are also rich in fiber, folate and iron. Fatty fish such as salmon are a good source of omega 3s and vitamin D. Lean meat, poultry and eggs are a good source of iron and vitamin B12.
Finding the right balance of energy in and energy out is key to your overall level of vitality and wellbeing. The food on our plate is the source of energy for our bodies and we need to balance these energy inputs with our bodies needs at different stages of life. Women generally require fewer calories than men because they are smaller in size with a lower muscle mass and higher body fat. Teen girls and young adults generally need additional calories during this developmental phase to support the physiological changes in the body. Around the age of 25, women’s metabolism decreases and they require fewer calories. During menopause, metabolism decreases further and women will need to eat fewer calories to maintain a healthy weight.
We need to balance this energy in with the energy we expend through exercise and our normal activities. Regular physical activity helps to improve your overall health by reducing risk of chronic disease, supporting elimination and detoxification, reducing stress and building strong bones. Women should get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 4 days a week. In addition, you can find ways to be active during the day by taking walking breaks if you sit at a desk job or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
In this increasingly fast-paced world, more and more women (and men as well) are struggling with striking the balance between work and their personal lives. Technology has helped the work-day to extend past normal working hours, which makes it a challenge to manage responsibilities at home, spending time with your spouse and kids, taking care of your health and other commitments. This can of course be stressful and take a toll on your health, increasing women’s risk of chronic disease and death.
Work-life balance is unique to each person, so the first place to try to create balance is to figure out what balance means for you. Then you can establish the steps you need to get there - which may mean setting new boundaries, asking for help or prioritizing your self-care.
If you try to achieve balance too quickly, it is easy to topple over. Instead take small steps in the right direction to create the balance that’s right for you.