A healthy, balanced diet is the cornerstone of leading a healthy lifestyle for both men and women. As children, boys and girls generally need the same things from their diet. But, as puberty begins, bringing with it changes to the body and hormones, women have different nutritional needs from men.
The NHS recommends that the average man and woman of healthy weight should consume approximately 2,500kcal a day for men, and 2,000kcal a day for women. These values can, of course, vary depending on age, metabolism and levels of physical activity, among other things.
While everyone is different and the number of calories you need will depend on several factors, in general, women will need to consume fewer calories. If you’re looking to gain or lose weight, speaking to your GP and/or a nutrition professional can help you understand how many calories you should be consuming.
Nutritional requirements for women
As well as needing fewer calories than men, women have some different nutritional requirements from men. This is mainly because of the hormones women produce.
The following vitamins and minerals are particularly important to include:
When women reach childbearing age, blood loss through menstruation can lead to iron deficiency or anaemia. For this reason, women will usually require more iron than men.
Iron can be found in a range of foods, including meat, fish and poultry and non-animal products such as spinach, lentils and fortified grains. Vitamin C will help your body to absorb more iron, so you should also look to include foods that are rich in this vitamin, such as broccoli, tomatoes and citrus fruits.
As well as upping your intake of iron-rich foods and sources of vitamin C, it’s also important to consider your current diet and what could be reduced. Nutritional therapist Claire Hargreaves (BSc Hons) investigates how your daily tea or coffee could be affecting your levels of iron.
Another key mineral to consider is calcium. Both men and women (over the age of 19 and not breastfeeding) are recommended to consume around 700mg of calcium. This should be easily acquired from your diet.
Although the recommended intake of calcium is the same for men and women, as women consume fewer calories, the proportion is larger. Women start to lose bone density from age 35 onwards and are thought to be more prone to developing conditions such as osteoporosis. This is especially the case after menopause, as calcium requirements typically increase.
Foods that contain calcium include dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts, soya beans and fish where you eat the bones (i.e. sardines). Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium from foods. While most of this comes from sunlight, you can include vitamin D in your diet. Vitamin D rich foods include oily fish, eggs, dairy and foods fortified with the vitamin.
In the following video, Registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert (BSc MSc RNutr) shares five tips to get more vitamin D in your diet.
Folic acid (or folate, the name for its natural form) is essential for both women and men. If you are not consuming enough folic acid, you may develop folate deficiency anaemia, which can make you feel unwell. Experts recommend that adults consume 0.2mg of folic acid per day, which can be found in foods such as asparagus, peas, brown rice, eggs, spinach and Brussels sprouts.
Folic acid becomes especially important for women when they become pregnant. This is because folic acid helps to reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida in unborn babies.
If you are trying to get pregnant, or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, typically, your consumption should be increased by a further 0.4mg, via a supplement. If you are unsure, please seek professional advice and/or speak to your GP. If you have a family history of spina bifida, you should speak to your GP as they may advise you to take a different dose of folic acid supplement.
Nutrition for women - what to consider
There are certain aspects of women's health, including if you've been diagnosed with a medical condition such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), when you might benefit from further nutritional support. Also, certain life stages like pregnancy or menopause, bring with them their own challenges. Having the dedicated support of a qualified nutrition professional can help you cater your diet to suit your individual needs.
Award-winning nutritionist, author, and founder of Happy Hormones for Life, Nicki Williams shares her own experiences of hormonal turbulence and the ways in which we can help ourselves when it comes to finding balance.
Here are some of the most common areas that a nutritionist may be able to help with.
Premenstrual syndrome or PMS refers to physical and psychological symptoms that may occur in the weeks before a woman’s monthly period. Almost all women will experience PMS symptoms, however, the type of symptoms and the degree of severity will vary from person to person. Typical symptoms include feeling irritable, breast pain, bloating and craving certain foods.
If PMS symptoms are impacting your daily life, you may want to consult your GP who can suggest treatment options. A nutritionist can look at your diet with the view of complementing any prescribed treatment. In some cases, dietary changes can help improve PMS symptoms.
During your period, you may experience cravings for sugar, chocolate and other refined carbohydrates. Your cravings often result from the extra nutrients your body requires, due to an increase in hormone levels and possibly increased insulin release which can reduce your blood sugar, causing you to crave or require more sugar/carbohydrate sources.
Enjoying a balanced diet full of nutritious food is necessary at all stages of life, however, if you are trying to get pregnant it becomes even more essential. A nutritionist can help create a healthy diet plan for women at this stage of their lives. Doing this will ensure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals to support conception.
If you are having trouble conceiving, nutritional therapist Melody Mackeown outlines some key guidelines to ensure your pre-conceptual nutritional needs are being met. Read more: ‘Why can't I get pregnant?’
If you are already pregnant, it's important to monitor your diet to ensure you are consuming the right amount of vitamins and minerals to keep you and your baby happy and healthy. A nutritionist can help guide you through the dos and don’ts of what you can eat, leaving you free to relax during this exciting time.
Menopause is when women stop producing eggs. The average age for this is 51 years but, in some cases, it can be earlier (this is known as premature menopause). When this happens the body stops producing as much oestrogen, which can result in physical and emotional symptoms such as hot flushes and mood swings.
If these symptoms are bothering you, your GP can suggest treatments. Often, a change in diet and lifestyle is recommended to help ease menopause symptoms. This is where a nutritionist can help, they can analyse your current diet and talk you through any changes you can make that may ease certain symptoms.
Menopause can affect many aspects of our health and well-being, including our skin. Nutritionist and dermal clinician Jan Curson (IICT, AdvDipNutMed, Cert Ed) explores how menopause affects the skin and how to adapt your skincare routine for menopause.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects the ovaries. Key features of PCOS include cysts that develop within the ovaries, irregular ovulation and high levels of androgens (the 'male' hormones). Various symptoms could point to this condition such as excessive hair growth, weight gain and acne. If you suspect you have this condition it’s important to visit your GP for a formal diagnosis.
Once you have been diagnosed, your doctor will talk you through the various treatment options. As one of the common symptoms of PCOS is weight gain, you may find it helpful to consult a nutritionist to help manage this symptom. Having this extra support to manage your weight can help improve your health, which will only complement the medical treatment you are receiving.
It's important to understand there is not one specific eating regime for PCOS. Each and every case is different and management is dependant on the presenting symptoms and lab test results. However, steps can be taken to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation and support hormone balance.
- Deborah Condon (DipION, mBANT, CNHC) explores how to manage polycystic ovary syndrome.
Endometriosis is a medical condition where body tissues outside of the womb behave like the lining of the womb. While there is a lack of research into the impact nutrition has on the condition, it’s believed that eating a balanced diet is beneficial and effective in managing symptoms. While some foods are thought to naturally control hormones, certain foods may have a negative effect.
For support and guidance, it’s recommended you consult a nutrition professional. After discussing your symptoms and overall lifestyle, they can create a diet plan tailored to you and your symptoms.
Devising a healthy diet plan for women
There are many factors to consider when maintaining a healthy diet. Our bodies are constantly changing throughout our lives, so we cannot expect to follow the same diet plan throughout our lifetime - as we’ve explored, our nutritional needs change.
Not only that, but our food preferences change too. In order to enjoy food, meals need to be varied and interesting. Taking these factors into consideration, it can be difficult to come up with a healthy diet plan ourselves.
How can a nutritionist help?
A nutritionist's role is to investigate your diet and suggest adjustments to ensure you’re getting everything you need from the foods you eat. This will be tailored to your specific needs, not only as a woman but also as an individual.
If there are any areas of women's health you would like to address (for example, if you are going through menopause) be sure to mention this to your nutritionist. This will prompt them to look at possible additions or changes to your diet that may be able to help reduce unwanted symptoms.