When it comes to women's nutritional needs, there's a lot of misinformation out there: headlines about fad diets cycling through our Facebook feeds, friends raving about that lemon cleanse they're doing, even basic advice on healthy eating habits. Take women's daily calorie requirements, for example.
Do an online search for "women's daily calories" and you'll see at the top of the results page a standard-looking recommendation of 2,000 calories per day, or 1,500 if you're trying to lose weight. But according to Kate Ferry, registered dietician and diabetes educator with The Christ Hospital Diabetes & Endocrine Centers, that guidance is inaccurate. A woman's daily calorie load is unique to her, based on her activity level, height and body type, and exercise habits.
Want to know how many calories per day you should be consuming? Ferry recommends MyFitnessPal.com, an online calculator that also helps you track what you eat and shows the number of calories in thousands of whole and prepared foods.
Being susceptible to misinformation about diet and health is just one nutritional pitfalls women can fall into. Ferry says that women sometimes equate appearance and health, leading them to pursue quick fixes promising fast weight loss. But we know that how we look doesn't mean we're healthy. And because women tend to care for others before themselves, they often overlook their own needs, skip meals and eat on the go between school pick-up and soccer practice.
Ferry has great advice to help women avoid a number of nutritional traps:
Falling for diet trends
"If you're looking for diet advice in your Facebook feed, you're getting a lot of misniformation," Ferry says. "And what works for one perosn doesn't necessarily work for others. I see people all the time who read something on the internet, and what they read about doesn't work for them. Trend diets aren't real-life ways to live."
So how should we be eating if we want to maintain a healthy weight and fuel our bodies? Ferry says the answer isn't sexy: Eat balanced meals, mostly plant-based, in moderation. And get enough exercise. While that advice won't capture eyeballs on social media, it's proven to work.
Breakfast is often called the most important meal of the day, and it is important because it sets you on a healthy eating path all day long. A balanced meal with whole fruits or vegetables, some protein and a little bit of carbs for energy is a good way to start. Some research shows that skipping breakfast possibly increases the risk for obesity, most likely because it means we're absolutely starving when lunchtime comes and we overeat.
Too many coffee drinks
Yes, those mocha-caramel lattes are loaded with sugar and calories. But Ferry adds to this list smoothies, teas and juices, both bottled and made to order at specialty shops. Even seemingly healthy drinks can have 2 or 2 1/2 servings per bottle, which can rack up the calories. Do your homework and consult MyFitnessPal.com before you order that sweetened hibiscus herbal tea.
Not enough water
The general guideline for women is 6–12 cups per day, depending on your activity level, height and weight, and how many fruits and vegetables you're eating (those contain water). The body is largely water, so we need it to help the body and brain function, lubricate joints, flush waste, carry nutrients to cells and prevent constipation. Even slight dehydration makes you feel sluggish and mentally unsharp, and can cause insomnia.
Not enough probiotic foods
Probiotics are the organisms that live in your digestive tract that improve gut health and help with immune function. Research is promising and indicates that a healthy gut microbiome aids in a variety of conditions, from the common cold to inflammatory bowel disease. Gut health is a reflection of our overall state of health. Ferry recommends that women consume probiotics like low-fat Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese and fermented foods like kefir, kombucha and kimchi. Also, she recommends prebiotic foods, which provide a fuel source for the good bacteria in our systems; those foods include flax and chia seeds, berries, dark leafy greens, asparagus and honey.
Not enough fiber
Dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble, helps regulate the digestive process, lowers cholesterol and helps maintain blood sugar levels. Whole grain foods, fruits, vegetables and beans are high in fiber. Fiber makes you feel fuller longer, so you don't go into your next meal absolutely ravenous.
Not enough protein
Protein provides stability and fuel for the body. Ferry recommends lean meats (especially poultry and lean cuts of pork), fish and beans. While beans are a great source of protein and fiber, they're higher in carbs, so you may need to watch your intake.
Too much diet soda
"Yes, it's great that you've given up sugared soda," Ferry says, "but when you switch to diet drinks, you don't get the carbs but you're racking up a lot of artificial sweeteners." She also advises moderation in diet drinks like tea or Crystal Light. Research suggests that artificial sweeteners may actually stimulate the appetite, and prompt you to eat more because you think you're saving calories on the diet drinks.
As women move through different stages of life, our bodies change, our metabolisms change and our nutritional needs change. Taking good care of ourselves, eating right and managing stress — those things should never change.
Looking for more help navigating life's stages? Check our guide to women's health, decade-by-decade!