Healthy eating for healthy women

Eating well and keeping physically active is important for all women. Here are some healthy tips for women at all ages and stages to keep your heart in top shape.

Simple nutrition tips for women to stay fit and healthy

It’s May which means it is Women’s Heart Health Month here at the Heart Foundation. Often women leave themselves at the bottom of their priority list, putting the needs of others around them first.  

Eating well and keeping physically active is important for all women. As we move through the different stages of life, our nutritional needs change. This month is an important time to empower and educate women on how to take charge of their health.  

Taking care of your heart 

Heart disease is often thought of as a ‘male problem’, but it’s the single biggest killer of women in New Zealand. It can affect women of all ages, so it’s important to take care of your heart throughout your lifetime. 

Good nutrition and maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help protect your heart. A heart healthy diet is based largely on minimally processed foods. It includes plenty of vegetables and fruit, some whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and other sources of healthy fats such as oily fish. It may also contain non-processed lean meats or poultry and/or dairy if you choose.  

There are also lifestyle factors you can control to reduce your risk of a heart attack including:  

  • quitting smoking
  • checking blood pressure and cholesterol 
  • managing diabetes 
  • daily physical activity 
  • moderating and/or reducing alcohol intake.

Building healthy habits as a teen 

Adolescence is a time of rapid change – physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially. As you juggle school, sports, socialising and sleep, it’s important to understand the value of maintaining a healthy diet. Developing healthy habits during these teenage years will set you up for a healthy future.  

  • Enjoy the goodness of vegetables and fruit at every meal. They are a great addition to smoothies or as a quick, portable snack. 
  • Make time for a nourishing breakfast before school. 
  • Choose whole grain breads and cereals as a source of energy for growth, sports and fitness. 
  • Keep an eye on your iron. As a teenage girl, you have a higher risk of not achieving daily iron needs, especially if you choose to eat less meat. Lean red meat, poultry, seafood and eggs all provide some form of iron. Vegetarian options of fortified breakfast cereals and legumes do provide iron, but in lower amounts. 
  • Your bones are growing quickly so calcium is an important nutrient for you. Calcium-rich foods (i.e. milk, yoghurt, cheese and tofu) support the development of strong bones. 

Optimising nutrition during your reproductive years

Nutrition deserves special attention if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Eating well to meet your increased nutritional needs and doing moderate exercise helps protect the long-term health of you and your baby.

When you’re preparing for pregnancy, are pregnant, or breastfeeding, normally you don’t need to make drastic changes to your diet. Continue to eat a variety of heart healthy foods, drink plenty of water and keep active.

Pregnancy makes the heart work harder. Certain conditions that you could experience during pregnancy such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes can increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, respectively, after your pregnancy.

Good nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent and manage these conditions during pregnancy as well as support your heart health. Remember it is not about ‘eating for two’ as an excuse to eat more than usual but making healthy food choices during pregnancy which also helps to prevent heart disease later in life.

It is also important to be aware of vitamins and minerals, smoking and alcohol, and food safety when preparing for a pregnancy as well as during pregnancy and breastfeeding. For individual advice during this stage of life speak with your GP and for tailored nutrition advice see a Registered Dietitian who specialises in women's health.

Heart healthy eating throughout later life 

Hormonal changes throughout life can influence your risk of heart disease and women who have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) before menopause have some hormonal dysfunction that can increase the risk of heart disease later in life.  

Heart disease in women tends to occur later in life and the risk increases once you reach menopause. This is because the changes during menopause affect the body in several ways, including increasing cholesterol levels and changes to blood pressure.  

Heart healthy eating is an important focus during menopause to moderate the effect that hormonal and metabolic changes have on increasing cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body fat.  

Maintaining a healthy body weight and including exercise in your day can help you reduce your risk of heart disease as well as help maintain your independence and quality of life.  

You may have a smaller appetite than when you were younger, so it’s important to make each bite count when it comes to nutrition. 

  • Choose a variety of whole foods every day including plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. 
  • As we grow older, we lose our sensitivity to thirst. It's important to drink fluids regularly (including water, tea, coffee or milk) even when you don't feel thirsty. 
  • Calcium and Vitamin D are essential for maintaining bone health. Enjoy calcium-rich foods like milk, yoghurt, cheese, tinned fish (with bones) nuts and tofu. To help boost your Vitamin D levels, pop outside for a walk in the sun around midday. 
  • Regular physical activity and high-fibre foods will help keep your bowel healthy. 
  • Vitamin B12 plays a role in normal blood and brain function. This can be found in animal foods like meat, eggs or dairy, or fortified foods. 
  • Dine with others – good company can help make meals a lot more enjoyable.

Making heart healthy choices

To help you make heart healthy choices at home for you and those around you we have a range of recipes and cookbooks that can support all skill levels and budgets. There is something to take you through each stage of your life.

No matter what age you are, embracing a healthy lifestyle can help you feel better inside and out.

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Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

As a Registered Dietitian, I know that food gives us so much more than just nutrients. I am driven to simplify nutrition messages, educate on all aspects of food and support Kiwis to develop a love of food that helps them stay healthy throughout their life.