Food plays numerous roles in our lives; it brings people together, provides an avenue to express our creativity, and most importantly, fuels our body so that we can go about our day-to-day activities. Our nutrition needs vary based on where we’re at in our life. Women need to consume the appropriate nutrients to help nourish their changing bodies, from adolescence to pregnancy and lactation, to menopause and post menopause. To help you get a better sense of what foods are more important, we put together this list of the twenty of the best foods for women. These are the foods that help women achieve their nutrition needs. (Note: This list isn’t in any order, all these foods are important in their own ways.)
20 of the Best Foods for Women
1. Salmon – Let’s Have a Heart-to-Heart
Salmon is a flavorful, hearty fish that provides vitamin D and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. Since women are more prone to bone disease such as osteoporosis, they need additional vitamin D to help increase calcium absorption for proper bone formation and bone health maintenance. Pregnant women especially need vitamin D to help ensure proper fetal formation. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is about 600 international units (IU).
Why is this one of the best foods for women?
Omega-3 and vitamin D levels vary in salmon depending if they are farm raised or wild caught. On average, a 3 oz portion can provide 340 IU of vitamin D. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon help increase HDL cholesterol, the “good,” heart-healthy cholesterol, while also lowering LDL cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol. According to the National Institutes of Health, the Adequate Intake (AI) for omega-3 for women ranges from 1.1- 1.4 grams (3), which includes pregnant and lactating women. A 3 oz portion of salmon can provide about 1.5g of omega-3s.
2. Let’s Get Nuts, Ladies. Walnuts to be Exact
Walnuts make an excellent crunchy addition to salads, yogurt, oatmeal, or as a crust for fish. The omega-3 fatty acids give this nut its cardiovascular boost, like salmon. Women, who are at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s compared to men, may benefit from adding walnuts to their diet. Walnuts provide antioxidants and phytochemicals, compounds found in plants, that may reduce inflammation and also help cognitive health. A 1 oz serving of walnuts can provide 2.5 g of omega-3 fatty acids.
3. Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat the more you…
Yeah, we know. They’re not called the musical fruit for nothing. But beans are an inexpensive, versatile, nutrient dense food that are a good source of fiber, protein and iron. Women need 25 g of fiber each day, and beans are an excellent source. A ½ cup serving of cooked beans can provide anywhere from 5-10g fiber, depending on the type of bean. The soluble fiber in beans helps lower blood sugar and cholesterol, while the insoluble fiber promotes regular bowel function. Beans are also a good source of iron.
Menstruating women, who may have lower levels of iron and an increased risk of anemia, can benefit from iron-rich beans. The RDA for iron for women ages 19-50 is 18 mg, while women 51 and older need about 8mg iron each day. Pair beans with vitamin C rich foods like tomatoes or salsa to help increase iron absorption. If using dried beans, soak them overnight to help reduce gas-causing effects, or choose no added salt canned beans for ease and convenience. Drain and rinse under running water to help wash away any excess sodium.
4. Yogurt – The Original Bone Broth?
Women can benefit yogurt’s calcium, protein, and probiotics. Women should aim to meet their recommended calcium intake to help maintain proper bone health. Calcium can also help lower blood pressure and help prevent kidney stones. The RDA for calcium for women 18-50 is 1000 mg, while women over 50 need 1200 mg. Yogurt is also a good source of probiotics, which are the “good bacteria” found in our gut to help promote digestion. Please be mindful that some yogurts contain added sugars. And sugar is definitely not one of the foods women should be eating. Look for no sugar added, or plain style yogurt. Flavor your own yogurt with cinnamon, vanilla, or berries. You can also choose Greek yogurt for an additional protein kick. Some plant-based yogurts are not fortified with probiotics or calcium so always make sure you read the label to get the most nutrient bang for your buck.
5. Garlic – A Real Gut Check
We talked about probiotics, but let’s shift to prebiotics. Prebiotics are the food for probiotics. Garlic can provide this food to nourish our gut bacteria for optimal digestion. Garlic is an inexpensive and flavor-packed bulb that really kicks up your food. Roasted garlic makes an excellent spread for bruschetta, or mix it in with smashed potatoes or roasted bell peppers. Lightly saute it with pasta or vegetables like broccoli, green beans, broccoli, and broccoli rabe.
6. Eggs – The Totes Protes
Over the years, eggs received a bad rap; first they were healthy, then they were detrimental to heart health due to their cholesterol content. Current research shows that dietary cholesterol does not play as big of a role in blood cholesterol compared to food’s saturated fat content. Eggs are an inexpensive, good quality protein that provides folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. According to the USDA, one large egg provides 44 IU of vitamin D for bone health. Eggs also contain folate, a crucial vitamin for pregnant women. Folate (or folic acid if used in food fortification), helps prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, during pregnancy, and is essential for red cell growth. Women 18 and older need 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate, while pregnant women need 600 mcg and lactating women need 500 mcg daily. One large egg provides 22 mcg of folate. In addition to vitamin D and folate, egg yolks also contain vitamin B12, which increases folate absorption and is essential for red blood cell growth too. One egg a day is fine, but consider adding egg whites if making omelettes or scrambled eggs.
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7. Fortified Cereals – Don’t Be Folate to the Party
As discussed before, women, especially pregnant and lactating women, need additional folate or folic acid. Fortified cereals are the primary source of folic acid in the American diet. The FDA considers folic acid to be so essential, it requires all grains to be fortified with folic acid. Some cereals contain 100% DV (400 mcg) of folic acid. Choose cereals made with whole grains that contain less than 6 grams of added sugar, do not have sugar in the first three ingredients, and contain at least 3 g of fiber. Most cereals are also fortified with iron. A 1 cup serving of iron-fortified cereal can provide about 8 mg iron. Pair your cereal with some orange slices or orange juice to increase iron absorption.
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8. Whole grains – Slow the Spike
Whole grains, including whole wheat pasta, bread, oatmeal, brown rice, are less processed than their highly refined counterparts. They contain more B vitamins, fiber, and protein. Whole grains slow blood sugar spikes, help improve cholesterol, and help make you feel fuller longer, which makes this a friendly food for weight loss. It can be quite the change from regular pasta or rice to whole wheat, so consider mixing half white and half whole grain pasta or rice. For bread, look for those lowest in sodium. Flavor your own oatmeal with cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin pie spice, or vanilla to help limit added sugars.
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9. Oranges – The Complete Package of the best foods for women
Oranges provide a bounty of nutrients including fiber, folate, vitamin C and potassium. We already know the importance of fiber and folate for women, and one medium-sized orange contains almost 40 mcg folate and 3 g fiber. Oranges also contain about 237 mg of potassium or 5% of the Daily Value, and 70 mcg of vitamin C. Potassium is an electrolyte that has many roles in the body. One key role of potassium is blood pressure regulation. Potassium helps the kidneys excrete sodium, which can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure. Remember that achieving and maintaining normal blood pressure can reduce heart attacks, strokes, and kidney failure. Vitamin C serves as an antioxidant to help fight off or neutralize free radicals, substances in our body that can cause disease via oxidative stress. Vitamin C also promotes wound healing. The RDA for vitamin C for women 19 years and older is 75 mcg, while pregnant and lactating women need 85-120 mcg.
10. Lean Meat – Iron it Out
A healthy, well-rounded diet can include lean cuts of beef such as eye round roast, tri-tip, top round, 92% ground beef, flank steak and strip steak. Lean meats are one of the richest sources of iron, with a 3 oz portion providing about 3 mg of iron.
11. Chia Seeds – The Mega Omegas
Chia seeds received a lot of hype lately, and rightfully so. They contain omega-3s for heart health, fiber, calcium, and all 9 essential amino acids (amino acids that they body cannot make) which is great for vegetarians and vegans. For your body to utilize the most nutrition from chia, buy them whole and grind them yourself as needed, or else they will pass through your GI tract. Use ground chia seeds in smoothies, oatmeal, or make your own chia pudding. Chias can also be used as an egg substitute- mix 1 tablespoon of whole chia seeds and 3 teaspoons of water and let sit for a few minutes until the mixture gels. This is also a great option to thicken jams.
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12. Berries – Don’t Be Anti Antioxidant
Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries are bright, flavorful additions to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, or on their own (or maybe even topped with some whipped cream for a snack or dessert). Berries are high in fiber, antioxidants like vitamin C, and can help reduce inflammation and can help reduce cancer risk. There is mixed evidence, however, on how effective cranberries are at reducing urinary tract infections, or UTIs. There is no conclusive data on recommendations for cranberries and UTIs, but it won’t hurt to include them in your diet. Look for reduced sugar or no sugar dried cranberries and cranberry juice.
13. Almonds – Pint Sized Powerhouses
Almonds have been all over the food news recently. Almond butter is now just as common as peanut butter, and it’s gaining popularity as a milk alternative. Why? They are nutrient and calorie dense, meaning they are rich in nutrients and calories for their small serving size. A 1 oz serving, or about 24 almonds, provides almost 6 grams of satiating protein, and 3 g of fiber. Almonds also provide just about half of our Vitamin E needs, an antioxidant that helps limit free radicals while promoting immune support.
14. Spinach – This Green Means Business
Spinach is great in salads, or cooked as a side dish or mixed in with noodles, pasta, or rice. It is definitely one of the foods women should be eating on a regular basis. It contains magnesium, which is essential for hundreds of metabolic roles in our bodies, antioxidants, and vitamin K to promote blood clotting. Raw spinach also is an excellent source of folate with 116 mcg per 2 cup serving, in addition to the 6 g of fiber per 2 cup serving. The serving size for cooked greens is ½ cup.
15. Apples – Just Don’t Compare Them to Oranges
Apples are a fall staple, but you can reap the benefits year round. The fiber content of apples can help you stay fuller longer, which can help aid in weight loss. They are also a good source of vitamin C and fiber. Their portability makes them a great snack for on-the-go. Saute apples with some vanilla, cinnamon, and a sprinkle of brown sugar as a delicious side to pork, or cook them down in the slow cooker to make your own applesauce.
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16. Pumpkin – Not Just For Pies (But Also For Pies)
Pumpkins are another fall staple, from soups and ravioli, to breads and other baked goods. It’s a good source of fiber and an excellent source of vitamin A for eye health, healthy fetal development, and immune support. A ½ cup serving of canned pumpkin provides 955 mcg of vitamin A and 3.5 g of fiber. Women 19 and older need 700 mcg of vitamin A, while pregnant and lactating women need 770 mcg and 1300 mcg. Canned pumpkin is available year round- just look for the no added sugar cans.
An extra tip for foods women should be eating:
Don’t forget about the seeds! They also pack a nutrient punch including fiber, immune supporting phytochemicals, and protein. Add them to your salads or baked goods, or enjoy them on their own as a snack.
17. Sweet Potatoes – The Alpha of Beta Carotene
Sweet potatoes are starchier compared to pumpkin, and they offer similar health benefits. They are readily available fresh year round, and are more versatile than pumpkins. Enjoy them whole, or as baked wedges, in casseroles or in desserts. A medium sized sweet potato offers 5 grams of fiber, almost 40% DV of vitamin C and over 16000 mcg of beta carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in our bodies. The beta carotene is what gives sweet pumpkins and pumpkins their bright orange color. Also, don’t peel the skins! That is where you’ll find the most fiber.
18. Olive Oil – Could Lower Your LDL PDQ
Unlike the typical American diet which is high in saturated fats that causes cardiovascular issues like atherosclerosis and elevated cholesterol levels, the Mediterranean diet utilizes olive oil as its fat source. The main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fatty acid or MUFA. These fatty acids can help lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol. Use olive oil as a substitution for saturated fats in cooking. Remember that olive oil is a fat and is calorie-dense, so use in moderation.
19. Herbs – The Salt Substitute
Always reaching for the salt shaker to season foods? Excess salt, whether from the salt shaker or processed foods that are abundant in the American diet, can cause hypertension. Herbs and spices are a heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory alternative to flavor foods. Experiment with different herbs and spices such as parsley, garlic, basil, cumin, onion or garlic powder, dill, rosemary, thyme, paprika, cayenne, ginger, cilantro to flavor your foods. The possibilities are endless!
20. Water – Ya Know, For Drinking
Good ol’ fashion water. It is arguably one of the most crucial nutrients our body needs. We know it’s technically a liquid, but we’re adding it to this list of foods women should be eating anyway. It makes up anywhere from 60%-70% of our bodies. We lose water when we sweat, sleep, and breathe. It is essential that we stay hydrated in order for our bodies to function properly. Not a fan of plain water? Add some sliced fruits or vegetables like lemon, limes, cucumber, berries or even mint. Flavored or plain seltzers are great, no calorie, no sugar options to stay hydrated. Sugar sweetened beverages like sodas, juices with added sugars, and blended coffee drinks provide extra calories that our body simply doesn’t need, and therefore should be limited.
In Conclusion – The best foods for women
You may find a common theme with these foods women should be eating: calcium, vitamin D, folate, iron, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, to name a few. While these nutrients are crucial for women’s health due to their changing nutrient needs throughout their lifecycle, they are just a snapshot of the nutrients our bodies need. No food provides every single nutrient that we need, but eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, unsaturated fats and whole grains offers the nourishment our body needs in order to function properly, and to help live the healthiest lives we can.
Christine Morgan is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian who currently practices in dialysis. Her experience includes renal nutrition, food service, and geriatrics. Her education includes a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and she completed her Dietetic Internship with the University of Delaware. She is also a member of the Tri-State Renal Dietitians Association.