by Jennifer Fleming, MD, RD and Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD
Love to eat and want to feel great? Choosing the right foods can help you do both. What follows is a description of our favorite super foods that ever woman needs. While these foods won't cover all your nutrient bases, incorporating them into your diet as often as possible can help give you a wide range of disease protection as well as bone building and energy boosting benefits.
Fatty fish such as salmon provide two kinds of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. While the omega 3 fats in salmon are beneficial for everyone, women receive additional advantages. Studies find the oils in fatty fish can help reduce the likelihood of post-partum depression, particularly if intake is increased during the third trimester. As the building blocks for the brain and nervous system, omega 3 fats also are critical for the developing fetus. For women in their forties and beyond, eating fatty fish can help in the prevention of heart disease. Salmon also provides vitamin D, a critical nutrient that many women lack. Two servings (about 4 ounces) of salmon, or other fatty fish, per week is recommended.
Research suggests that the phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, may help prevent breast cancer by altering estrogen metabolism. Rich in vitamin C and a good source of vitamin A and fiber, broccoli helps you feel full on less than 30 calories per serving. You also get the added benefit of folate (folic acid), calcium, iron, and potassium. Make it a goal to consume two or more cups (raw) or one cup cooked of broccoli per week.
Eating just a handful of walnuts a day has been shown to help you lower cholesterol, sleep better, cope with stress, prevent heart disease, fight cancer, and more. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition reported that the equivalent of two ounces of walnuts per day helped delay development of breast cancer and slow tumor growth in mice. The protective benefits of walnuts are thought to come from the antioxidants (phytosterols) and plant-based omega 3 fats they provide. Since nuts are calorie dense, one ounce (20 halves, 185 calories) is a good place to start.
Beans are a good source of protein and fiber and may have protective effects against heart disease and breast cancer. Studies published in the International Journal of Cancer, found that beans, and lentils in particular, may offer some protection against breast cancer. Other research has found an association between a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and a higher intake of legumes. Legumes include peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts. As a source of both soluble and insoluble fibers, beans also help lower cholesterol, while their level of a nutrient known as isoflavone can help in the regulation of hormones and may aid with PMS, perimenopause, or menopause symptoms. Aim for three cups of cooked beans a week. If using canned beans, rinse them first to help prevent that gassy feeling.
Greek yogurt offers double the protein of most yogurts and typically less sugar. Yogurt also contains healthy "probiotics" - healthy bacteria with the power to protect your gut. There is strong evidence the probiotics in yogurt can reduce problems associated with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory digestive tract disorders - both conditions that impact women more than men. One serving supplies a mere 90 calories and nearly 25% of a woman's daily calcium needed, which is important for maintaining bone health. Three servings per day of dairy are recommended.
Flaxseeds contain three potentially beneficial compounds: plant-based omega 3 fats, fiber, and disease-fighting compounds called lignans. Although it is not known which compound is at work, a Mayo Clinic study reported that 40 grams of crushed flaxseed reduced menopausal-related hot flashes, while several other reports suggest flax can lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The brown or gold seeds are even thought to play a role in fighting breast cancer. Recommended intake is 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day since whole seeds are not completely digested.
Kale is loaded with beneficial nutrients for everyone, but some are particularly good for women. As a rich source of vitamin K, kale acts as a potent bone builder. Specifically, vitamin K is required to activate bone proteins needed to ward off osteoporosis. Studies have shown that women who eat diets rich in vitamin K are at a lower risk of hip fracture. In addition, kale also provides the antioxidants lutein and zeazanthin, which help protect vision. At 36 calories per cup cooked, we suggest you eat as much as you would like!
Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries)
Similar to wine, these fruits may protect your body with potent cancer fighting nutrients known as anthocyans, which are thought to play a role in cell repair. Research shows anthocyans may decrease the risk of several cancers, including breast and gastrointestinal tract cancers. Berries also offer powerful anti-oxidants protection, which not only benefits the heart but also may protect the skin from signs of aging. Our suggested goal would be three to four servings every week.
In addition to the cholesterol lowering benefits of oats, as a source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, they are also good for helping you feel full and keeping your bowels regular. Add oats (and other whole grains) to your diet throughout the day. The American Heart Association recommends 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber a day - that's about six times the amount of fiber in an average serving of oatmeal.
Check out these recipes to incorporate these healthy foods into your diet!
Lemony Kale Salad
Greek Yogurt with Warm Berry Sauce