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Food for thought through life

With Women’s Day round the corner (8 March), bodyLIFE takes note that nearly half the gym-going population comprises of women, who need special care and attention...

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Women in all societies are tasked with myriad activities: run a home, bring up children, take care of the elderly and work outside the home. This calls for a healthy diet to give them energy, support their mood, maintain weight and help them keep looking their best. Attention to women’s nutrition by gyms and fitness studios is like caring for them by offering them support through different stages of their lives.

A well-rounded diet consists of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean sources of protein. Healthy food can help reduce pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), boost fertility, combat stress, make pregnancy and nursing easier, and ease symptoms of menopause. Whatever your client’s age, committing her to a healthy diet will help her look and feel her best, so that your fitness centre is on top of its commitments.

Adolescence is the transition period between childhood and adulthood; it is about the same time that puberty sets in, usually between the ages of 10 and 13 years. This period is characterised by a spurt in body growth. Adolescent nutrition is, therefore, vital for supporting the physical growth of the body and for preventing future health problems.

Any nutritional deficiency seen during this significant period of life can have an effect on the future health of the individual. This is the time to prepare for the nutritional demands of pregnancy and lactation that girls will go through later in life. The important nutrients that need to increase during adolescence include energy, protein, calcium and iron.

  • Calcium: needs during adolescence are greater due to the increased demand for skeletal growth. About 45% of peak bone mass is attained during adolescence; therefore sufficient calcium intake is essential for the growth of bone mass and to reduce the risk of fractures and osteoporosis.
    Daily calcium requirement among Indian women is 1,200 mg. Teens are encouraged to consume three to four servings of calcium-rich foods each day. Low-fat dairy products (milk & yogurt) provide the greatest amount of calcium. Other good sources are low-fat cheese, calcium-fortified juices and cereals.

  • Energy: needs of teenagers are influenced by activity level and basal metabolic rate. Adolescents need additional energy for growth and activity; they would need approximately 2,200 calories each day. To meet these calorie needs, they should choose a variety of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy products and whole grains.

  • Dietary fat: is a significant cell structural component and continues to play important roles as an energy source. The Australian dietary guidelines recommend 25% of total energy as fat, with less than 10% of energy from saturated fat for children aged over 15 years.

  • Protein: is important for growth and maintenance of muscle. Adolescents need 45-60 gm of protein each day. Protein is also available from low-fat dairy products, dals, sprouts, lean meat, eggs, nuts, tofu and certain vegetable sources.

Nutritionists and dieticians should make sure their vegetarian clients consume enough proteins. Inadequate protein intake leads to reduction in linear growth, delay in sexual maturation and reduced accumulation of lean body mass.

  • Iron: is essential for transporting oxygen in the bloodstream. A deficiency of iron causes anaemia, which leads to fatigue and weakness. The need for iron increases due to rapid growth and expansion of blood volume and muscle mass, and the onset of menstruation imposes additional iron needs for girls.
    The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron is 12-15 mg per day. Sources of iron are lean chicken, pork, legumes, whole grains, tofu, nuts and green leafy vegetables.

  • Zinc and Folate: are required for the rapid growth and hormonal changes in an adolescent child. The RDA for zinc for females aged 14-18 years, is 9 mg/day. Good sources of zinc are whole grains and breakfast cereals which are fortified with zinc.
    Folate plays an integral role in DNA and protein synthesis. Therefore the requirement of folate in adolescents is high. Cereals, orange juice, brown bread, low-fat dairy products and lentils are good sources of folate.

Into adulthood

Including a variety of fiber-rich food like whole grains, beans and legumes can keep women feeling full for a long time by giving them a feeling of satiety. Help them get plenty of calcium to support their bone health, because women are at greater risk than men of developing osteoporosis.

Include plant-based sources of calcium like beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and animal-based sources like low-fat dairy products.

Caffeine consumption interferes with hormone levels and also increases the loss of calcium: therefore ask your clients to limit its consumption. Women lose a lot of iron during menstruation, and most do not get enough iron in their diet. Prescribe iron-rich foods such as lean red meat, dark poultry, lentils, spinach, almonds, and iron-fortified cereals.

Protein needs are based on weight, rather than calorie intake. Adult women should eat at least 1 gm of lean protein per kg body weight per day. That means a 54-kg woman should eat at least 54 gm of high-quality protein per day. Protein is an essential part of any healthy diet; but eating too much animal protein can cause calcium loss and lead to a decrease in bone density and osteoporosis.

Instead of red meat and processed meat, your clients can opt for fish, skinless chicken and turkey, low-fat dairy products and plant-based protein sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu and soy products.

Help them divide their protein intake among meals, but aim for 25-40 gm of high-quality protein per meal. Consuming less than 15 gm won’t benefit bone or muscle.

Older women should aim for 1-1.5 gm of lean protein for each kg of body weight. Nursing women need about 20 gm more high-quality protein a day than they did before pregnancy, to support milk production.

Prime time

A pregnant or breastfeeding woman requires about 300 extra calories per day to maintain a healthy pregnancy and provide sufficient nutrition for her growing baby. The intake of fat and protein are very important for the baby’s developing brain and nervous system. But they should consume lean protein and healthy fats.

Alcohol is to be totally avoided, and caffeine cut down drastically because these have been linked to miscarriage and inhibition of iron absorption. Make sure to recommend smaller and frequent meals to prevent and reduce morning sickness and heartburn.

A breastfeeding mother must include lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain food, low-fat milk. She must avoid excess caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.

Here, a note of caution: All pregnant and lactating women should avoid food that has high levels of mercury: deli meats, fish and raw sprouts.

A specific diet can ease women’s transition into their menopausal years, a phase where their reproductive systems prepare to retire and there is a shift in the production of hormones. The requirement of calcium is the highest for a woman during this stage as it supports bone health and helps prevent osteoporosis.

The other essential requirement is Vitamin D and Magnesium, both of which support calcium absorption. Omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids can help boost hormone production and give their skin a healthy glow.

Evening primrose oil and black currant oil are good sources of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid that can help balance women’s hormones and alleviate hot flashes. Another source that can help relieve hot flashes is flaxseed which is rich in lignin and helps stabilize hormone levels.

Ask your clients to add one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed to their daily diet. Soy products are high in phyto-oestrogen, plant-based oestrogen that are similar to oestrogens produced by the body. Some studies suggest that soy may help manage menopausal symptoms; so ask them to include soy milk, tofu and soy nuts. Yam and mushrooms are also good sources of plant oestrogen.

– Wanitha Ashok

Nutritionist and Gym Managers

The writer is a trained fitness instructor, certified nutritionist and widely-travelled motivational speaker. She also runs the Moving Body aerobics studio in Bangalore.


Easing PMS

Fluctuating hormones can lead to bloating, stomach cramps and fatigue even a week before the onset of menstrual period. A specific diet can help alleviate these and other symptoms of PMS.

You should advocate a “no-tolerance” policy to intake of excess salt, trans-fats and even refined sugar. Excessive consumption of sugar can worsen mood swings, and salt promotes water retention and bloating. Other foods to be avoided are caffeine and alcohol as they can worsen PMS symptoms.

Including food rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, flax seeds, fish and olives, will help ease cramps and other symptoms. A multi-vitamin supplement can help relieve cramps.


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