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Nutritional Health for Women

Proteins are essential for the body to build and repair muscle and tissues and produce enzymes and hormones, which keep the body regulated. Proteins are made up of combinations of several of the 20 types of amino acids. Some of these amino acids can be reused by the body, but almost half of them must be eaten on a regular basis; these are called "essential amino acids." Although proteins are best used by the body as building blocks for muscle tissue and hormones, they can also serve as an energy source if glycogen levels are low. They provide four calories per gram.

Vegetarians, especially vegans (who do not eat dairy, eggs, or fish) tend to have lower protein in their diets, sometimes lacking essential amino acids. In order to fully meet their protein needs, they can obtain complete proteins by combining grains (corn and wheat) and legumes (nuts, beans, and seeds) in their diet. These foods have additional benefits of having cancer- and disease-fighting properties. Vegetarian diets are quite healthy if followed intelligently to make sure protein (and calcium) needs are not neglected. Vegetarians who do not eat fish, dairy, or eggs should eat at least two servings daily from each of these food groups: legumes, grains, and nuts and seeds.

Vegans Must Eat at Least Two Servings Daily of Each of the Following

  • Legumes—dried beans and peas, soybeans, tofu, peanuts, peanut butter
  • Grains—cereals, breads, pasta, corn, rice, wheat
  • Nuts and seeds—cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds
There are benefits to meat, poultry, and dairy sources of protein, as they have other valuable nutrients. Red meat is the most optimal source of iron, an essential mineral often deficient in active women. It also contains B vitamins, zinc, folic acid, and complete proteins. Actually, many of the nutrients in meat (iron, folic acid, vitamin B6, and zinc) are the same that are lacking most in women's diets. Red meat and fish also contain creatine, a building block of energy molecules. Fish is an excellent protein, as it contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce heart disease and stroke, and is recommended to be eaten twice weekly.

Good Sources of Protein

  • Red meat
  • Eggs
  • Poultry
  • Legumes, tofu
  • Fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dairy products
  • Certain whole grains
There has been some controversy regarding contaminants such as hormones, antibiotics, and bacterial or viral diseases associated with meat, poultry, and fish sources of protein. Hormones are fed to some chicken and cattle to increase size and decrease fat, and antibiotics are used liberally to prevent diseases. There are no specific dangers to eating these foods in small amounts, but there are some theories that in large quantities they can lead to food allergies or interfere with growth in younger children. If you are concerned about these risks, purchase meats and dairy products labeled "organic"; these are required to be free of hormones and antibiotics. Many milk, egg, and meat products are now labeled specifically as hormone-free or antibiotic-free.

Fish, although one of the healthiest proteins, can also be harmful especially to women planning pregnancy. Certain types of large fish, including swordfish, tilefish, large tuna steaks, and mackerel should not eaten more than once monthly due to their higher mercury content, which interferes with brain development in unborn and young children. These fish should be avoided for the first year prior to planning a pregnancy. Raw fish and shellfish can also transmit parasites and hepatitis A.

Food preparation is another concern. Fully cooking meats is recommended to kill any potential bacteria or diseases and is always recommended when preparing poultry. Eating blackened food is not recommended, as the charring has been linked to stomach and intestinal cancer.

Most girls and women actually eat enough protein, as it is found in many sources other than meat or fish. Tofu, nuts, peanut butter, cheese, milk, yogurt, and dried peas and beans are good sources of proteins. Some whole-grain breads and pastas also have protein. Many food and energy bars now contain protein as well. Athletic and active women require 1.4g to 1.8g/kg/day (.7 to .9 g/lb/day) to make up 20 to 25 percent of the diet. For an average 140-pound woman, this equals 100 to 126 grams of protein daily. (A three ounce serving of chicken contains 30 grams.)

Because most women's protein needs are easily met, there is no need for protein or amino acid supplements. These are expensive, put a strain on the kidneys, and cause dehydration and bone loss. They are also often combined with other chemicals, which can be dangerous.

The Pitfalls of Protein and Amino Acid Supplements

  • Overload kidneys
  • Cause dehydration
  • Cause calcium loss
  • Are expensive
  • Are ineffective
  • Are often combined with other unhealthy ingredients

Next: Page 4 >>

From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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