When it comes to superstar nutrients for women, fiber, iron, calcium, folate and antioxidants take center stage. Between them, these foods and nutrients can help you burn fat, boost your mood, strengthen bones, prevent weight gain and maintain healthy digestion.
Despite this broad range of benefits, many of us are deficient in one or more of these essential nutrients. Below you’ll find advice on how much of each nutrient you need to consume daily as part of a healthy diet, as well as the richest food sources.
#1. Amazing Antioxidants
WHAT ARE THEY? Antioxidants are certain vitamins, minerals and plant substances in food that help neutralize free radicals before they cause damage to healthy cells. By-products of the body’s natural oxidation processes, free radicals are also created by exposure to pollution, sunlight, alcohol and stress, making antioxidants potent buffers against the ‘toxic’ aspects of modern living.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? While there’s no set level, experts advise getting them from a variety of plant-based foods, rather than supplements. That’s because many antioxidants work better together than when taken in isolation, and can even be harmful if consumed in large doses.
WHERE CAN I GET THEM? Antioxidants are plentiful in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods such as grains, nuts and some meats, poultry and fish. Pomegranates are an especially potent source, outdoing even red wine, grape and blueberry juice.
ANTIOXIDANT SUPER-FOODS: Pomegranates, Mangoes, Strawberries, English spinach, Kiwifruits, Lemons, Almonds and Olives.
#2. Belly-Filling Fibre
WHAT IS FIBER? A component of all plant materials; dietary fiber is made up of carbohydrates that the body can’t digest. There are two types: soluble fiber, which forms a gel like substance that slows digestion so your body can absorb more nutrients and help lower cholesterol re-absorption; and insoluble fiber, or “roughage”, which promotes regularity.
HOW CAN IT BENEFIT ME? As well as keeping your digestive system healthy, soluble dietary fiber lowers cholesterol, slowing transit time of food through the stomach and stabilizing blood sugar levels, so you feel fuller for longer.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? The National Health and Medical Research Council advises women to get 25 grams of fiber a day, although most of us only consume two thirds of this.
WHERE CAN I FIND IT? Plant foods including whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes are all sources of fiber. To up your intake, aim for two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables (two and half cups of cooked vegetables or legumes) every day, and choose wholegrain breads or breakfast cereals that contain at least three grams of fiber per serve.
FIBER SUPER-FOODS: Raspberries, Blackberries, Pears, Frozen peas, Brussels sprouts, Prunes, Baked beans and Wholemeal bread.
#3. Invincible Iron
WHAT IS IRON? An important mineral in foods, iron is used by the body to form hemoglobin in red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body. Iron is also a part of the muscle protein myoglobin, which provides oxygen to muscles and is involved in energy production in the body.
HOW CAN IT BENEFIT ME? Iron is vital for overall health, stamina and mental function. Not getting enough can lead to fatigue, weakness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and can affect immunity. Women of child-bearing age, athletes, pregnant women and vegetarians are at extra risk of deficiency.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? The official target is 18mg of iron a day for women, which can be achieved through a healthy balanced diet. If you think you may be deficient, avoid self-medicating with supplements, which can have harmful side effects if taken unnecessarily. Instead, see your doctor for a blood test.
WHERE CAN I FIND IT? The most readily absorbed form of iron, haem iron, is found in meat, seafood and poultry. Non-haem iron, which is well absorbed by the body, is found in legumes, wholegrain breads and cereals, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and eggs.
IRON SUPER-FOODS: Lean beef fillet, Trim lamb steak, Oysters, Egg yolks, Chickpeas and Wholemeal bread.
#4. Bone-Building Calcium
HOW CAN IT BENEFIT ME? Getting enough calcium from an early age helps build strong bones, but it’s also vital as we get older to offset the loss of bone. Other research suggests calcium may help regulate blood pressure, and help with PMS and weight maintenance.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? Osteoporosis Australia advises that women up to the age of 51 have at least two servings of calcium-rich foods a day to reach the recommended daily intake of 1000mg. Post-menopausal women should aim for three serves to reach their daily quota of 1300mg.
WHERE CAN I FIND IT? Low-fat dairy foods are the best, most readily absorbed source of calcium. To up your intake, start the day with a wholegrain cereal with low-fat milk. Other good non-dairy sources are leafy green vegetables, fish with edible bones (tinned salmon and sardines), figs, almonds, Brazil nuts and fortified soy milk.
CALCIUM SUPER-FOODS: Milk, yoghurt, Cheddar cheese, Mozzarella cheese, Sardines, Firm tofu, Almonds with the skin and dried figs.
#5. Fabulous Folate
WHAT IS FOLATE? Folate is one of the B-group vitamins. Because it is a water-soluble vitamin, the body is unable to store it, so you need it in your diet everyday. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, found in supplements and fortified foods.
HOW CAN IT BENEFIT ME? Both adults and children need folate to make healthy red blood cells and prevent anaemia.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? If you’re eating a varied, balanced diet including folate fortified foods and wheat-based breads and cereals, you should be able to meet the recommended daily intake of 0.4mg of folate. Pregnant women have a greater need, and should take folic acid supplements for their first trimester.
WHERE CAN I FIND IT? All wheat bread (with the exception of organic) is required to be fortified with folic acid, and it’s also added to some foods, such as cereals, juice and yeast spread. You can find the vitamin naturally in leafy green vegetables, legumes, seeds, liver, poultry, eggs and citrus fruits.
FOLATE SUPER-FOODS: Asparagus, English spinach, Brussels sprouts, Cauliflower, Oranges, Vegemite and Dried lentils.
For an Added Boost…
FOR EXTRA ANTIOXIDANTS: (1) Have a small glass of fruit juice with antioxidant vitamins. (2) Incorporate three different colored vegetables into lunch meal (e.g. red capsicum, baby spinach, grated carrot). (3) Add some nuts, seeds and seed oils to salads (e.g. almonds, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil).
FOR EXTRA FIBER: (1) Choose a fiber cereal – one with at least 3g of fiber per serve (12% of daily needs). (2) Select a bread with 5g of fiber or more in 2 slices (20% of daily needs). (3) Add frozen peas to your rice – 1/2 cup of peas adds 6g of fiber (24% of daily needs).
FOR EXTRA IRON: (1) For toast, try wholemeal or mixed-grain bread with added iron – 2 slices contain approximately 4.5mg iron (25% RDI). (2) Use leftover beef bolognaise in a wrap or jaffle – 1/2 cup cooked lean beef mince has 2.1mg iron (12% RDI). (3) Enjoy lean beef or trim lamb 3-4 times a week: 200g lean beef fillet has 4.4mg iron (24% RDI); 200g trim lamb steak has 5.2mg iron (29% RDI)
FOR EXTRA CALCIUM: (1) Add 1/2 cup skim milk and 3 Tbsp low-fat fruit yoghurt to a calcium enriched cereal (e.g. Uncle Toby’s Essentials for Women) – adds 455mg calcium (45% RDI). (2) Mash the soft bones through canned pink/red salmon: 105g can of pink adds 200mg calcium (20% RDI); red adds 180mg calcium (18% RDI). (3) Use natural low-fat yoghurt as a basis for a salad dressing – 200g tub has 470mg calcium (47% RDI).
FOR EXTRA FOLATE: (1) Spread a concentrated yeast extract spread on toast – 5g adds 100mcg folate (25% RDI). (2) Toss blanched (still crispy) asparagus through a salad – 5 medium spears add 90mcg folate (22% RDI). (3) Add raw, shelled peanuts to stir fry: 1/4 cup raw peanuts adds 93mcg folate (23% RDI).