A healthy balanced diet contains a variety of foods including plenty of fruit and vegetables, plenty of starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice, some protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, eggs and lentils and some milk and dairy foods. It should also be low in fat, salt and sugar. Try to follow these tips:
How much we should be eating changes over the years. During teenage years the body is still growing and combined with the active lifestyle of a teenager means we need to take in enough to meet our energy needs. But at the end of the teenage years, on average, energy requirements are likely to be less and start to decline as we age. Eating more than our body needs will obviously lead to gaining weight. Before the menopause, when a woman gains weight she is likely to carry the excess weight in the hip and thigh area which is referred to as a 'pear shape'. Then following the menopause women tend to gain weight in and around the abdominal area (central obesity) commonly referred to as an 'apple' shape. Carrying excess weight in this area increases your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and breast and endometrial cancer. Severe obesity can cause bone joint problems, as carrying the excess weight can place immense strain on joints such as the knees. Throughout your life you should adjust your overall intake of food according to how physically active you are. But although you may have to adjust your overall intake of food, it is always important to ensure that your diet remains balanced right throughout life. This means eating a wide variety of foods and ensuring you eat a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, fibre and vitamins and minerals. African-Caribbean and Asian women (Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi) appear to have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure and this may be related to a tendency to carry any excess weight in the stomach area.
It's important to have some fat in your diet because fat aids the absorption of certain vitamins, is a good source of energy, and a source of the 'essential fatty acids' that the body is incapable of making itself. But fat should make up no more than one third of the energy (or calories) in your diet. The average woman eats more than this. Try to cut down on fatty foods, especially those rich in saturated fats. These are particularly found in red meat, meat pies, sausages, butter, cheese, cakes and biscuits made with hydrogenated fats. Try to choose foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat such as vegetable oils e.g. olive and sunflower oil.
Most adults in the UK eat too much salt, which increases the risk of high blood pressure. Having high blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. It is believed that, in part, our relatively high salt diets may contribute to the increases in blood pressure we see with age in our population. Adults should eat no more than 6g salt a day (2.4g sodium). 75% of the salt we eat is already in the food we buy, so it is important to check the label and try to choose the lower-salt option. Potassium, on the other hand, may help lower blood pressure. Fruit and vegetables are good sources of potassium. You should be able to get all the potassium you need by eating a varied and balanced diet. But if you decide to take potassium supplements, it's a good idea not to take too much because this could be harmful. Taking 3700mg or less of potassium supplements a day is unlikely to cause any harm. However, older people shouldn't take potassium supplements unless on medical advice.
You don't need to eat as much as a man because on average a woman's body does not expend as much energy. This is partly because a man's body is made up of more muscle than a woman's body, which contains more fat. And muscle uses up a lot more energy than fat. You need more iron. This is because menstruation can lead to a shortage of iron, particularly if you have heavy periods or your diet is low in iron. The best source of iron is red meat. It can also be found in pulses (such as beans and lentils), bread, green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals. Vitamin C might help us to absorb iron, so fruit juice with an iron-rich meal is a good idea. As meat is such a good source of iron, vegetarians need to be particularly careful about ensuring that their diet contains enough iron-rich foods. If you are restricted to the indoors or have to keep yourself covered up when you're outdoors, then you should try to increase your dietary intakes of vitamin D. Good food sources are oily fish and eggs, or foods with added vitamin D such as margarine and breakfast cereals. Your calcium requirements will change over your lifetime. This is at its highest during the teenage years (11-18 years) and then decreases slightly. Good sources of calcium include milk and cheese, green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, soya beans and tofu. During pregnancy it's best to seek the advice of your GP or midwife because in some instances, for example for teenage mothers, the calcium requirement increases.
If you are planning to get pregnant, you should take a 400 microgram (mcg) folic acid supplement each day from the time you stop using contraception until the 12th week of pregnancy. This helps prevent birth defects such as spina bifida. If you would like to take your folic acid in a supplement that contains other vitamins, make sure it contains 400mcg folic acid and doesn't contain vitamin A or fish liver oil. You should also make sure you are eating foods that are high in folate - the natural form of folic acid - such as green leafy vegetables. Rich sources (greater than 100mcg per serving) of this vitamin are Brussels sprouts, asparagus, spinach and kale. Other foods that contain lower but significant amounts (50-100mcg per serving) include broccoli, spring greens, cabbage, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, parsnips and oranges. If you have already had a pregnancy affected by a neural tube defect, a higher dose is recommended. Speak to your GP for advice when planning a pregnancy.
Osteoporosis can affect older women after the menopause. This is where bone density reduces and so the risk of fractures increases. Some people think the development of osteoporosis is related to not getting enough calcium at a young age But calcium is only one factor. Physical activity, body shape and other dietary factors such as vitamin D also play a role in helping to keep bones healthy in later years. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt - remember to choose lower-fat varieties when you can - and canned fish, such as sardines, where you eat the bones. Other sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and cabbage, but not spinach), soya beans and tofu. Some research suggests that having more than an average of 1.5mg a day of vitamin A over many years may lead to a higher risk of bone fractures. Women who have been through the menopause should therefore avoid having more than this. This means eating liver or liver products no more than once a week, or eating smaller portions. You should also avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A or fish liver oils (which contain high levels of vitamin A). We get most of our vitamin D from the effect of summer sunlight on our skin, but vitamin D is also found in oily fish, eggs, and foods such as breakfast cereals and margarines that have added vitamins. People who may be particularly short of vitamin D include women of Asian origin who always cover up their skin when they're outside and older people who rarely get outdoors. If you aren't getting enough vitamin D, you might also be more at risk of the harmful effects of having too much vitamin A. So if you're short of vitamin D, it might be a good idea to boost the amount you're getting. The best types of physical activity for good bone health are weight-bearing exercises such as brisk walking or climbing stairs. Remember to get the advice of your GP before starting any new exercise programme. The role of soy protein, a source of phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens) in controlling menopausal symptoms and helping to protect against heart disease, osteoporosis and some cancers is currently being explored. These diseases and menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes are much less common in Japanese women, who have a higher intake of soy protein compared to Western women. At this point in time it is not clear if phytoestrogens in food or dietary supplements can reduce menopausal symptoms because the current scientific evidence is conflicting. More research is needed before firm conclusions can be reached.
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