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Womens' Health: A Matter of Balance
Provided by the American Dietetic Association: Your Link to Nutrition & Health

Few choices in life are as important as those women make about their health. Yet it is only recently that women's health has found its rightful place in the national conversation.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

A healthy weight is a matter of balance--not too heavy, not too thin. For adolescents and young adults, an age group that is particularly vulnerable to society's "skinny is beautiful" message, being too thin can interfere with estrogen production. Without enough estrogen, young girls don't build the bone mass they need to protect them from osteoporosis later in life.

On the other hand, the consequences of obesity can be equally as devastating. Each year, about 150,000 women die from diseases directly related to obesity, such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Obesity also plays a prominent role in hypertension, osteoarthritis and immune dysfunction.

If women are concerned about their weight and feel they need some coaching to learn how to manage it, a registered dietitian (RD) can help teach women how to set reasonable weight-loss goals and now to keep weight off once they have lost it. Remember even a small weight loss can have significant health benefits.

Enjoy Physical Activity

Exercise helps reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by strengthening the heart muscle, lowering blood pressure, and boosting HDL "good" cholesterol, which is especially heart protective for women. Regular exercise also preserves muscle tissue--the more muscle one has the more calories she burns--and builds strength, flexibility and coordination. It also helps prevent Type II diabetes, which is the kind of diabetes that occurs with age and overweight.

The biggest benefit most women can relate to best is that exercise makes you feel good. Remember, the most dramatic health improvement occurs when women make that first move toward a more active lifestyle.

Enjoy More Fruits, Vegetables and Grains

Fruits, vegetables and grains are a gold mine of vitamins and minerals, some of which act as antioxidants that cleanse the body of damaging free radicals which are unstable oxygen molecules attacking healthy cells and contributing to disease such as cancer and heart disease. Plant foods also contain phytochemicals, which act as antioxidants while others mimic the hormone estrogen. In addition the fiber in fruits, vegetables and grains helps lower cholesterol and keeps the digestive tract running smoothly. And simply from a practical standpoint, filling up on plant-based foods is a great way to cut down on fat, which is much higher in calories.

Get Enough Calcium

Calcium is an important nutrient for women of all ages. Not only is it a major player in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis, calcium is also vital to a number of basic body functions and may help in the prevention of hypertension as well.

Because preventing osteoporosis is a lifelong process, getting enough calcium early in life is an important first step. Peak bone mass is usually achieved by the early twenties. In the thirties and forties, calcium helps maintain bone health. At menopause, women lose bone mass due to a drop in estrogen. For postmenopausal women, getting enough calcium (and exercise) is critical to protecting bones, particularly if no hormone replacement therapy is used.

Dairy products are the best source of calcium, but many women, especially younger women, avoid dairy products because they fear weight gain. In fact, low-fat dairy products offer just as much calcium as their full-fat counterparts. Nevertheless, some women will need to take a calcium supplement. A physician or registered dietitian can help women decide if a calcium supplement is a good idea.

Women who would like to take the first step toward promoting good health through nutrition can call The American Dietetic Association's dietitian referral network at (800) 366-1655 or look for The American Dietetic Association Guide to Women's Nutrition for Healthy Living (Perigee 1997) at local bookstores.


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