You already know to cut back on calories, saturated fat, and sugar. Women also know that both iron, calcium, and the B vitamin folic acid are important for their health. But there are a few nutrients that many women unknowingly are not meeting even basic requirements for, and that could leave them at risk for a whole host of ills. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Age-Proof Your Body is here to gives us a heads up on what those nutrients are and what foods we need to include in our diets. Also, apparently there are a couple of nutrients we think we need, but actually are getting too much of.
1. Vitamin D
It is no longer just good for strong bones. In fact, it might be useful for a whole host of ills, from diabetes and multiple sclerosis to boosting your immune system and warding off breast, ovarian, and colon cancers. It might even help curb symptoms of Winter Blues. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego projected the benefits of raising blood levels of vitamin D year-around and found that it would prevent approximately 58,000 new cases of breast cancer and 49,000 new cases of colorectal cancer each year, as well as three-quarters of the deaths from these diseases in the U.S. and Canada. Yet, researchers estimate that more than 80% of women are vitamin D deficient.
Other than cod liver oil (ICK!), the only good natural sources of the vitamin are fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel. Egg yolks have a little vitamin D, but not enough to make a difference. The FDA allows only a few kinds of food to be fortified with vitamin D, including milk, fortified OJ and soymilk, or fortified cereals. Even then, not all brands add the vitamin. While all milk is fortified with vitamin D, most yogurts and other dairy products aren’t. To meet the 1,000 Units a day many experts are not recommending, a woman must drink 10 glasses of milk a day. Not likely! Your best bet is to include a few fortified foods in the weekly menu and take a supplement.
[PROPS: Salmon, eggs, and a variety of vitamin D-fortified foods, such as a carton of nonfat milk, Silk soymilk with vitamin D, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice, Total cereal. Samples of supplements (I can bring these, since I know what to look for.)]
Magnesium is a major player in the body, helping regulate at least 300 processes, one of them the production, release, and activity of insulin. Several studies, including one from Harvard School of Public Health, found that women cut their risk by 48% when they consumed magnesium-rich diets. In contrast, low intake of magnesium increases risk more than three-fold. This mineral also helps regulate the heartbeat, lowers blood pressure, helps reduce stress and possibly depression, improves nerve transmission and muscle contraction, and helps prevent bone loss.
You need at least 320 milligrams a day, yet three out of every four women fall short of this dose. You can easily meet your daily needs by eating more nuts, cooked dried beans and peas, green vegetables, avocados, whole grains, and other magnesium-rich foods.
If you chose to supplement, limit the dose to under 500 milligrams. This mineral can cause diarrhea when consumed in hefty amounts (it’s the active ingredient in Milk of Magnesia!)
3. The Omega-3s
While saturated fats deserve top billing on the Ten Most Wanted list of dietary villains, the health of most women would significantly improve if they increased intake of the omega-3 fats. Unlike saturated fats, which are primarily storage fats that accumulate in arteries and on bellies, the omega-3s are structural fats that function as building blocks for essential cell components, from cell membranes to hormone-like compounds. These “healthy” fats lower a woman’s risk for heart disease, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.
There are 3 omega-s and by far the one that gives you the biggest bang for your buck is the omega-3 fat DHA. It constitutes 97% of the omega-3s in the brain, which explains why it is most closely linked to lowering the risk for depression, memory loss, dementia including Alzheimer’s, and other neurological disorders.
You need at least 1 gram of omega-3s a day or at least 220 milligrams of the omega-3 DHA. Most women get a fraction of that. You can reach that minimum goal by including two servings a week of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, or sardines, in your diet. Or by including omega-3-fortified foods in the daily menu.
4. Vitamin K
Up until a few years ago, the only known function of vitamin K was to aid in blood clotting. Now we know this vitamin also is important for maintaining strong bones. Low vitamin K intake increases a woman’s risk for hip fractures up to six-fold.
Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables are the best source of this vitamin, Yet, as few as 7% of women consume even one dark green leafy vegetable on any given day, while vitamin K-devoid French fries far outweigh broccoli as American's favorite vegetable. Considering that vitamin K levels in the blood drop within a few weeks with low intake of these foods, it is likely that what once was thought to be a rare deficiency, is potentially much more common. The good news is that just including one to two daily servings of broccoli, spinach, turnip greens kale, or legumes such as lentils or soybeans is enough to boost vitamin K levels. The only warning here is for women on blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin. They should discuss sources of vitamin K with their physician before dramatically increasing their intake of these foods.
[PROPS: Cornucopia of broccoli, spinach, turnip and greens kale. Assortment of legumes such as lentils, split peas, garbanzo, and/or soybeans.
5. Vitamin B12
This B vitamin is very important in protecting memory and nervous system function, yet women are less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12 as they age. Several studies report memory loss and even dementia that was reversed when women increased their vitamin B12 status. Also, this vitamin is only found in meats, eggs, and milk, so women who are strict vegetarians are prone to deficiency unless they supplement or include several servings a day of foods fortified with vitamin B12. Women taking acid-inhibiting medications for stomach conditions, such as gastric reflux, also could be low in the vitamin, since B12 requires stomach acid for absorption.
The best dietary sources are clams, tuna, tempeh, yogurt, eggs, miso, chicken, and fish. Also make sure your multi contains at least 2 to 5 micrograms of vitamin B12.
The 2 Nutrients You Probably are Consuming in Excess
Ask most Americans what nutrients they are most concerned about and more often than not, they will say protein. Yet, every national nutrition survey going back to the 1960s has found repeatedly and consistently that this is the one nutrient that Americans get too much of, while we are often found low in everything else from A to Zinc. Unless you are a body builder in the active phase of building huge amounts of muscle, you probably need no more than about 1 gram of protein for every couple of pounds of IDEAL body weight. For example, an average women who is 5'5" and weighs 130 pounds needs about 50 grams of protein a day. A bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk at breakfast will supply 30% of that quota, a PB&J sandwich at lunch supplies another 30%. A tiny 3 ounce serving of chicken breast - about the size of a deck of cards - supplies half of a woman’s entire daily need for protein. Basically, you have to really work at eating terrible before your protein needs will suffer.
2. Refined Grains
Yes, our bodies and brains need carbohydrates, which are the #1 fuel that drives everything from our muscles to our thinking ability. But our consumption of refined grains has skyrocketed, up more than 42% since the early 1970s. According to the USDA, we are eating 300 more calories a day compared to the mid 1980s and almost half of those extra calories are coming from refined grains. Our appetites have dramatically increased for thousands of highly-refined, calorie-dense grain-based foods, including doughnuts, cookies, white pasta, sweetened cereals, white bread and bagels, sports bars, and snack foods. Along with our increasingly sedentary lives, these carbs have packed on the weight, especially with the super-sized portions we’ve so grown accustom. Along with the pounds have come an escalating risk for disease. Instead, switch to a few servings daily of 100% whole grains and limit or avoid altogether the refined stuff - that is, unless you are vigorously active and already at your idea body weight!