Should women be eating differently from men? How do the ideal diets for men and women compare? The answer is, to use the very common phase, “same-same but different.” The nutritional requirements for men and women are very similar, but there are significant differences in dietary details that women need to pay attention to, experts say.
“Men and women are 98.5 per cent identical in their DNA, and their nutritional needs are more similar than different. That’s true for carbohydrates and proteins but not for fats, vitamins and minerals,” says Dr Wafaa Ayesh, Director, Clinical Nutrition at Dubai Health Authority.
It comes down to biology, explains UK-qualified nutritionist, wellbeing expert and author Laura Holland. “Women have monthly menstrual cycles and go through pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause. For these reasons their requirements for minerals and vitamins are higher than for men,” she says.
Iron and calcium are crucial for women’s health, she suggests that women at any stage of their lives will benefit from the improved hormonal balance and better energy levels that come with iron- and calcium-rich foods such as seaweeds, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, avocados and dried fruits. “We don’t need more endless lists of what we ’should’ be eating, rather better guidance in becoming more aware of our body’s signals of imbalance and how to address this relative to our unique biology and biography!”
A varied and balanced diet from the preconception period is essential for maternal well-being and favourable outcomes of pregnancy.
It’s important that women focus on themselves, Holland adds. “Women are carers, usually of everyone else before themselves, this is the real challenge that we need to address to really help women to feel good whilst accomplishing all the amazing things that are being witnessed today. Their success should not be at the cost of their health and wellbeing, nutrition is a wonderful way to begin re-prioritising.”
An age -related approach
With that in mind, Better Health asked the nutritionists to recommend the correct nutrition approaches for adult women across different age groups, from young adults to women in their golden years. Here’s what they had to say:
Women aged 19-30 need about 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day with 3 hours of physical activity per week, says Alaa Takidin, Clinical Dietitian, Canadian Specialist Hospital. She recommends a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds. “Young adults should focus on important vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron and vitamins A, C, D and B complex.” This is when you need to make sure you’re drinking enough water and taking in enough sodium and fibre.
Consider eating more sweet potatoes, whole grains, oats, quinoa, beans and lentils, rather than sugary white bread and pasta, adds Holland. “[Look for] complex carbohydrates to feed the brain for studying and to encourage sustainable energy and balanced blood sugar, which will help the mood too!”
While it’s hard to delineate the best age to become a mother, women who are readying for motherhood, pregnant or breastfeeding, require a varied and balanced diet. “A varied and balanced diet from the preconception period is essential for maternal well-being and favourable outcomes of pregnancy,” Dr Wafaa says, adding that women in even the most industrialised societies have unsatisfactory diets in pregnancy and lactation.
Ensure you’re getting enough Omega-3 fatty acid, iron, iodine, calcium, folic acid and Vitamin D. That means adding oily fish such as sardines or salmon, meat, beans, leafy vegetables, citrus fruits and dairy products to your plate, as well as making sure you get enough sunlight. At this stage, think about your body mass index, she adds. “Very high or low BMI — over 35 or under 20, respectively — is associated with difficulties in conceiving, complications during pregnancy, labour and delivery, and increased risk to the baby. Any disordered eating present must be addressed before weight gain or loss is encouraged.”
Besides the recommendations for young adults, Takidin adds a few recommendations: “Stay hydrated, don’t skip meals — especially breakfast, ensure regular physical activity, eat in moderation, and snack on healthy foods.”
A woman in her 40s generally begins to think more carefully about her health. At such a time, women need 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day with three hours of physical activity per week, Takidin says. She recommends eating a diet high in whole foods and fibre, with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, high-quality protein and dairy products, as well as foods rich in phytoestrogen (plant-based compounds that mimic the effect of estrogen in the body), and calcium to support bone health.
“Think flaxseeds, chia seeds, organic tempeh, organic soya milk, broccoli, seeds, oily fish, almonds, organic live yoghurt,” explains Holland. This is also when you need to think about limiting saturated fats, highly refined carbs, sugar and caffeine, Dr Wafaa says. “And quit smoking if you smoke cigarettes,” she adds.
The transition into your post-reproductive years occurs on average between the ages of 45 and 55, but there’s no fixed age range. The hormonal changes that your body faces at this point may force you to think about keeping the weight off while getting more exercise. “With menopause come metabolic changes, reduced bone density and an increased risk of heart disease,” Dr Wafaa says. Many women also face unpleasant symptoms, such as hot flashes and poor sleep. She recommends turning your attention to whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, high-quality protein and dairy products, and says phytoestrogens and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids from fish, may also help.
You should be thinking about nutrient-rich foods that are low in calories to stay within your 1800-2,000 calorie daily limit. “A varied, whole-food diet that you enjoy and find easy for you to digest, making sure to minimise sugar and anything that you know doesn’t work for your body,” Holland says. “Think of a good selection of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lentils, beans and whatever protein sources feel good for your body.”
By now — somewhere in your 50s on average — you’ll have begun to eat much more in line with your body’s needs, and it’s important to stay with a low-sugar diet that’s rich in calcium, vitamin D, fibre, phytoestrogens and omega-3 fatty acids, Takidin says. She suggests aiming for 1,600 to 2,000 calories per day, depending on how active you are.
Other lifestyle factors become important at this point in your life, Dr Wafaa says, adding that there’s always room to improve your health habits. “This may mean being extra diligent about following a healthy diet and getting more physical activity. You may need to focus on weight loss but avoid fad diets and while any movement is better than none, energetic workouts can help keep your weight in check. Poor sleep quality may be an issue, and this can compound problems with weight gain — so practice good sleep habits,” she says. That’s advice that should stand you in good stead throughout your life.