Food women should be eating

Berna Harmse explains what food women should be eating.

We cannot change our genetic makeup, age, or gender, but we can surely make positive changes to the environmental factors influencing us, such as diet; the amount of exercise we get; and whether we smoke or not.

There are many reasons why we eat; eating is a social thing and a cultural thing. Most of all though, food is our fuel and can also be our medicine. Even the wise Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.


As children, boys and girls have similar dietary needs but the moment puberty strikes, we start developing unique requirements. As women age, our hormones change our equilibrium, and we then need to change our diets to keep up with the changes.

As women, we need to realise that good nutrition plays an important role in all our life stages. It helps with moods, concentration levels, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms, and keeps our bones strong. It also boosts fertility, aids in pregnancy and breastfeeding health, and helps with the symptoms of menopause.

In our hectic lives in today’s world, we easily get so focused on the needs of others – our family and kids – and the demands of work, we mindlessly neglect our own dietary needs.

Wonder woman nutrients

Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth, but it is also involved in regulating heart rhythm and the function of the nervous system. A deficiency in calcium can lead to or worsen mood problems and sleep difficulties. Women are also at greater risk of osteoporosis than men; thus, it’s important not only to get enough calcium in but also magnesium and vitamin D, to support bone health.

Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, grains, tofu, cabbage, and summer squash.

Magnesium increases calcium absorption from the blood into the bone. In fact, your body can’t utilise calcium without it. Good sources include leafy green vegetables, summer squash, broccoli, halibut (fish), cucumber, green beans, celery, and a variety of seeds.

Vitamin D is also crucial to the proper metabolism of calcium. Aim for 600 IU (international units) daily. You can get vitamin D from roughly half an hour of direct sunlight, and from foods such as salmon, shrimp, vitamin-D fortified milk, cod, and eggs.

Iron deficiency is the most common deficiency in women. Iron is important for maintaining healthy skin, hair and nails, but also helps create haemoglobin that carries oxygen in our blood. Anaemia, caused by lack of iron, can deplete energy, and also impact mood and concentration.

Iron-rich food sources include red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, kale, spinach, beans, lentils and fortified breads and cereals. Plant-based sources of iron are more easily absorbed by your body when eaten with vitamin C-rich foods. Eat fortified cereal with strawberries on top, spinach salad with mandarin orange slices or add tomatoes to lentil soup.

When women reach childbearing age, they need to eat enough folic acid to decrease risk of birth defects. Be sure to consume adequate amounts of folic acid daily from fortified foods or supplements, in addition to food forms of folate from a varied diet. Citrus fruits, leafy greens, beans and peas naturally contain folate. There are many folic acid fortified foods such as cereals, rice and breads.

Eating behaviour

  • Not only do our food choices, but also our eating behaviour impact on our well-being.
  • Chew food slowly. This allows the stomach to signal to the brain when it is full.
  • Sit down to eat. Eating while rushing around or reading, talking over the phone or watching television and writing is likely to result in overeating. Concentrate and enjoy what you’re eating.
  • Keep tempting foods out of sight. A bowl of fruit in the dining room or kitchen is a better option.
  • Use smaller plates. This tricks the eye and makes a small serving look generous.
  • Pack away leftovers straight away. If they’re there, you are likely to have that second or third helping.
  • Keep busy. Take up a hobby. The busier you are, the less likely you’re to be tempted to eat.
  • Do not serve too large a portion for people, especially children. Do not bribe them with pudding if they finish their food.
  • Do not buy tempting foods – you are likely to eat them, because they are there.
  • Do not go on crash diets.
  • Stop dieting and start eating well.
Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian in Cape Town, she holds a MSc in Dietetics and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Berna Harmse

Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietician in Cape Town, she holds a MSc in Dietetics and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.