5 Foods Every Woman Should Eat More Of
For busy women of all ages, five foods boast high scores in essential nutrients — iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin K, folate, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids, in particular. Best of all, these foods are easy to find at practically every grocery store, no matter where you live, and each of them takes less than 15 minutes to prepare. (Leesa recommends choosing organic produce and beans! And adding a bit of organic apple cider vinegar to your beans when soaking!)
Broccoli is practically unrivaled among all foods when it comes to protecting against cancer. Its powerful phytonutrients not only help neutralize carcinogens, but they also stimulate detoxifying enzymes that help the body rid itself of cancer-causing and other harmful toxins. Indole-3-carbinol, another compound found in broccoli, is particularly healthy for women; it’s been shown to reduce the risk of breast and cervical cancers and helps suppress the spread of existing cancer. This green vegetable also happens to be one of the richest food sources of the flavonoid kaempferol, which has shown protective benefits against ovarian cancer.
What’s more, broccoli is a superior source of folate, a B vitamin that’s needed for making and protecting DNA, producing new blood, forming new cells, and synthesizing protein. Folate has also been tied to a decreased risk of some cancers in adults.
But there are a couple of reasons why this nutrient is crucial for women’s health in particular. First, folate is one of the most essential nutrients for pregnant women. It supports proper development of the fetal nervous system and protects against neural tube (birth) defects. Second, research shows that women are twice as likely as men to experience depression, and numerous studies have linked folate deficiency with depression. The good news: There’s also evidence showing that boosting folate levels can increase serotonin levels and improve symptoms of depression.
An added bonus: As a natural diuretic, broccoli helps reduce bloating and water retention associated with premenstrual syndrome.
Broccoli is an excellent source of dietary fiber and of vitamins C, K, and A, and it’s a good source of manganese, tryptophan, potassium, B vitamins, phosphorus, magnesium, and protein. It’s also high in calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin E. Many of these nutrients work in partnership: Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron; vitamin K anchors calcium to the bone; dietary fiber promotes better absorption of all nutrients.
Quick and healthy tip: For optimal taste and nutrition, steam broccoli florets for no more than five minutes, or until they turn bright green. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon, and sea salt to taste.
Onions have many healing and health-promoting properties: They’re anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and a natural blood thinner. Rich in chromium, vitamin C, and dietary fiber, onions are also a good source of manganese, vitamin B6, tryptophan, folate, and potassium.
This bulbous vegetable is used to combat cancer, arthritis, and osteoporosis, and it helps fight infections, colds, fevers, and asthma. Onions also help prevent constipation, increase blood circulation, improve gastrointestinal health, promote heart health, and are thought to help lower blood pressure and triglycerides.
Onions are a healthy whole food, there’s no doubt. But they’re particularly good for women, who are four times as likely as men to develop osteoporosis — and who are at even higher risk for osteoporosis during and after menopause. Onions help prevent bone loss by destroying osteoclasts, a type of bone cell that’s responsible for the breakdown of bones. In effect, onions work like bisphosphonates, a type of medication that’s commonly prescribed to treat or prevent bone disease. But unlike those potent drugs, onions bust up osteoclasts without dangerous side effects. And, like broccoli, onions are a potent cancer-fighting food; high onion consumption has been linked to a whopping 25 percent reduced risk of breast cancer and a 73 percent reduced risk of ovarian cancer.
Quick and healthy tip: Keep a container of diced raw onion in the fridge to add to meals all week — it’ll spice up a sandwich or salad, and it’s an easy addition to quick stir-fries. Sautee the onion in a tablespoon of oil, then add the rest of the ingredients in roughly the order of how long they take to cook; the onion-infused oil will add a great flavor to the whole dish.
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, watercress, cabbage, turnip greens, collard greens, and arugula share similar nutrient profiles, featuring impressive scores of vitamins K, A, and C; calcium; potassium; beta-carotene; manganese; folate; magnesium; iron; and dietary fiber.
Well-known research tracking 66,940 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study found a 40 percent decrease in the incidence of ovarian cancer in women with the highest dietary kaempferol intake as compared to women with the lowest intake. Along with broccoli, kale is one of the best sources of kaempferol — which has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Kaemperfol is also found in tea as well as in Brussels sprouts and other greens.
Spinach is extremely high in iron, which protects the immune system and helps the body produce energy. It’s especially important for menstruating and pregnant women, who require higher levels of this nutrient. However, iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies for all women. Iron deficiency causes anemia and low energy due to decreased oxygen being delivered to the cells. You can find iron in most leafy greens; other good sources include chard, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce.
Dark leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, kelp, and turnip greens are also excellent sources of magnesium, which plays a significant role in many key biological processes. This miracle mineral has been credited with a slew of health benefits, including lowering high blood pressure, strengthening the immune system, strengthening bones, aiding in sleep, relaxing muscles, and relieving stress and anxiety.
Here are a few more good reasons to gobble up magnesium-rich foods: According to womenshealth.gov, migraines plague an estimated 29.5 million Americans, and roughly 75 percent of those affected are women. Magnesium has been shown to reduce the severity and recurrence of migraine headaches. And a study of 60 women with urinary urge incontinence found that magnesium supplementation improved the symptoms of overactive bladder in nearly half of participants. Magnesium also aids in calcium absorption, playing a significant role in preventing osteoporosis; several studies on humans have shown that magnesium helps maintain bone mineral density.
Finally, according to Mental Health America, about 12 million women in the U.S. experience clinical depression each year. It’s estimated that women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Depression has been linked to low levels of calcium and magnesium, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a study comparing the bone mass of depressed premenopausal women to their nondepressed peers found that the depressed women had reduced bone mass and the most thinning in their hip bones, putting them at higher risk of fractures.
Many leafy greens boast high levels of Vitamin E, which helps stave off menopausal hot flashes. Excellent sources of Vitamin E include mustard greens, turnip greens, and Swiss chard; you can also find it in spinach, collard greens, and kale. Like broccoli, leafy greens are natural diuretics and are great for combating bloat and water retention.
Swiss chard and spinach are two of the most calcium-dense plant foods on earth. Calcium is a particularly important nutrient for women; it’s needed to build healthy bones and to prevent bone loss after menopause. Women who consume diets rich in calcium and vitamin D are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and to experience premenstrual symptoms. Not only does calcium help build strong bones and teeth, it also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and regulating heartbeat.
Magnesium and calcium aren’t the only nutrients that contribute to bone health, though. Vitamin K is vital for bone health and plays a unique role in helping prevent osteoporosis. Just because you have sufficient calcium in your diet doesn’t necessarily mean it will find its way to your bones — and that’s where vitamin K comes in. It helps calcium adhere to the bone, aiding in its absorption. In fact, without adequate vitamin K, calcium can deposit itself in joint and muscle tissue, creating painful problems and preventing absorption in the bone. Calcium deposits in soft tissue are more prevalent in women than men, so vitamin K is especially important for women. It’s found in abundance in most leafy greens, particularly spinach, kale, and Swiss chard.
Quick and healthy tip: To get the most nutrition out of your leafy greens, you’ll need to add a little healthy fat to help your body absorb the nutrients. Sautee dark leafy greens in coconut oil over medium heat until just wilted. Optional: Add a small handful of golden raisins while sautéing, or serve with a small handful of raw pine nuts.
Beans, no matter what type of bean you choose, each tiny package is bursting with a rich array of nutrients. Beans are an incredibly rich source of folate, fiber, tryptophan, protein, iron, magnesium, and potassium, and they’ve been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and breast cancer.
Hands-down one of the best food sources of fiber you can find, one cup of cooked pinto beans contains nearly 15 grams of fiber (along with a score of other essential nutrients) — but you’ll find plentiful fiber in all bean varieties. Fiber is a wonder nutrient that fills you up, regulates digestion, lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, helps control weight, and has a preventive effect on diabetes and heart disease. Women’s risk of heart disease increases significantly with menopause.
Potassium is vital to the health of every type of cell in our bodies, and you can find good amounts of this mineral in lima, pinto, and kidney beans. Potassium plays an essential part in bone strength, muscle function, and nerve function. Numerous studies have shown a positive link between dietary potassium intake and bone mineral density in pre-, peri- and postmenopausal women, suggesting an important role in preventing osteoporosis in all women. In addition, the Nurses’ Health Study, which recorded data from 91,731 female
participants over a 12-year period, found that women with the highest dietary potassium intake were only 65 percent as likely to develop symptomatic kidney stones as compared to their peers with the lowest dietary potassium intake.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid with several important functions. One of them includes the ability to raise serotonin levels in the brain. For this reason, beans and other foods high in tryptophan can help regulate appetite, improve sleep patterns, and boost your mood.
Like other beans, soybeans are an excellent source of dietary fiber. And just one cup of
cooked soybeans also provides a whopping 29 grams of protein. Furthermore, studies have linked the isoflavones found in soybeans with improved bone density in postmenopausal women who previously had low bone mass; researchers believe these compounds may play a significant role in preventing bone fractures. Soy isoflavones have also been credited with easing menopausal hot flashes.
Quick and healthy tip: Although dried beans are the healthiest option since they don’t have added sodium, the canned variety will do just fine as long as you rinse the beans in a colander before using them. For a quick and healthy homemade hummus, combine one can of garbanzo beans; one tablespoon each of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and tahini; half a teaspoon of cumin; and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper in a food processor. Blend until smooth and serve with crudités. (White beans make an excellent substitute for garbanzos.
Wild Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and iron, and it’s a high-quality source of protein. A word of caution: Independent studies comparing the nutritional content of wild and farmed salmon showed the farmed variety had drastically reduced levels of protein and healthy omega-3 fats. Farmed salmon were also found to have significant levels of carcinogenic substances and other toxins, as well as higher levels of inflammatory omega-6 fats. If you’re eating for health, opt for the wild variety.
Salmon is one of the few food sources naturally rich in vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium, maintain proper levels of calcium in the blood, and promote normal bone growth. Due to these qualities, vitamin D is regarded as an important nutrient in helping prevent osteoporosis. Sockeye salmon scores the highest in vitamin D; a four-ounce serving of sockeye provides 739 IU of vitamin D — compared to Chinook salmon, which provides 411 IU for the same size serving.
Vitamin D’s benefits extend beyond good bones, however. Medical and health experts now recognize this nutrient as playing an essential role in overall health. Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is a widespread problem that has been linked to depression and multiple sclerosis, two conditions that women are at a higher risk for than men. Researchers have additionally linked low levels of vitamin D with obesity and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Our bodies don’t produce essential fatty acids, so we must get them from our diet. Wild salmon is exceptionally rich in heart-healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids, which guard against inflammation, reduce the risk of strokes, lower blood lipids, boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, and help prevent heart disease. Omega-3s might be fats, but — in moderation — they’re actually pretty figure-friendly: Not only do they slow digestion, which means you feel satiated for longer, but they may also help get rid of belly fat. Several studies link consumption of omega-3s with reduced abdominal fat. Other benefits of omega-3s include a reduced risk of breast cancer and improved brain function. Some research suggests that omega-3s may be helpful in treating depression, although further research is needed in this area.
Quick and healthy tip: Sprinkle salmon fillets with fresh chopped rosemary and black pepper, top with lemon slices, and place under the broiler for ten minutes or until it flakes easily. Leftovers work well the next day crumbled into omelets, sandwiches, or salads.
By Nikki Jong, Caring.com contributing editor