An Introduction to Female Nutrition
Over the course of the Hot Mama Fitness and Nutrition Programme we will explore the different stages of the female life cycle to better understand how we can use good nutrition to achieve balanced female health.
Good diet and lifestyle practices are important throughout the entire female life cycle, however certain stages carry greater importance for optimum nutrition. The main stages for Hot Mamas to consider are:
- Pregnancy (Prenatal and Postnatal)
- Lactation (Breastfeeding)
Throughout these different life stages, women experience various physical, biological and emotional changes which shift the requirements for nutrition to support these stages. If these requirements aren’t met it can lead to a number of female-related health conditions such as:
- Anaemias and Osteoporosis
- Digestive Disorders (Acid Reflux, Coeliac, Colitis, Crohn’s, Diverticulitis, Haemorrhoids, IBS)
- Endometriosis and Fibroids
- Hyper or Hypothyroidism
- Metabolic Syndrome (Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, Obesity)
- Mood Disorders (Anxiety, Depression)
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
- Pre-Menstrual Syndrome
- Skin Disorders (Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis)
- Urinary Tract Infection
How Does Good Nutrition Help?
All of these health conditions are directly or indirectly related to the proper functioning of the endocrine (hormone) system and digestive system. Therefore, keeping our hormones and gut in balance via the food we eat is key to optimum female health.
Does Diet Affect Our Hormones?
When we talk about hormones, we tend to think about eostrogen and progesterone and stop there. However, our endocrine system is so much more than just the sex hormones.
In fact, more than fifty hormones are produced in the human body, and these little chemical messengers do just about everything from managing hunger and satiety cues to promoting our sleep!
The foods we eat can affect how our hormones are produced, how they are released and how they interact in the body. Eating the right foods can keep our endocrine system working in harmony.
Follow a Balanced Eating Pattern
A balanced eating pattern is the cornerstone of health and simple mechanical eating, that is, three meals and two snacks, evenly distributed throughout the day, will set the wheels in motion to achieve hormonal balance.
This is partly because our blood sugar is regulated by two hormones insulin and glucagon. Mechanical or structured eating helps us to regulate insulin and glucagon production and maintain good blood sugar control.
Mechanical eating also promotes the production of the hunger and satiety hormones ghrelin and leptin which help regulate how and when our brains signals to us that we need to eat or feel full.
For women who have spent a lifetime of yo-yo dieting or restrictive/binge eating, the ability to recognise hunger and satiety cues is severely diminished. Mechanical eating helps to re-establish the signalling between brain and body and is essential for hormonal health.
What about Gut Health?
Gut health is important because 70% of our immune system is housed in our digestive tract. Good gut health means improved digestion and a lower risk of developing many health issues including allergies and autoimmune disorders.
Trillions of bacteria live in our digestive tract and they actually outnumber human cells! These bacteria are important because they protect our immune system, produce hormones, help absorb vitamins and even communicate with our brain.
Our gut bacteria feed on fibre to survive and it’s their only food source. They can’t digest protein or fat and in the absence of fibre they starve and start digesting the mucous lining of the gut as an alternative food source.
It sounds gruesome but it also highlights how important it is to look after these gut bacteria that essentially look after us. An erosion of the gut lining or an imbalance in gut bacteria can have a very negative impact on our health.
Since gut bacteria need a constant supply of food, fibre-diversity from plant foods such as wholegrains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds is essential to keeping these bacteria and the body in balance.
We can achieve fibre-diversity by aiming to eat 30 different plant-based foods a week. It may seem a lot, but eating more fibre-foods at every meal and snack will improve overall health and our gut bacteria will thank us for it.
What is a Balanced Meal for Optimal Female Health?
A balanced meal is one that includes each of the three macronutrient components needed for optimum health:
- Complex Carbohydrate (45-65%)
- Protein (10-35%)
- Healthy Fat (20-35%)
A balanced intake of macronutrients at each meal will, in turn, provide a balanced intake of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals).
1. Benefits of Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is used to produce and store energy, and to spare the use of protein and fat for energy since these macronutrients have other more important uses within the body (like hormone production!).
Glucose is the brains primary energy source and is reliant on a constant supply. If the brain cannot get an adequate supply of glucose the liver will make glucose from amino acids or break down fatty acids to make ketones as an energy supply.
Complex carbohydrates are important because, unlike simple carbohydrates, they don’t cause blood sugar spikes or a surge in insulin. Instead, they release their energy slowly so are good for diabetes, PCOS and weight management.
Complex carbohydrates pack in more nutrition than simple carbohydrates and contain lots of plant-based vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which are often lost when carbohydrates are refined and processed.
Most importantly, complex carbohydrates are high in fibre which is excellent for gut health. Gut bacteria feed on fibre and need it to make the short-chain-fatty-acids that protect our immune system, prevent digestive disorders and regulate
Eat more carbohydrates by including fibre-diverse foods such as wholegrains, vegetables and fruits with every meal and snack. Legumes, nuts and seeds overlap as plant-based proteins but they are a good source of fibre-rich carbohydrate too.
Aim to eat 5 to 7 portions of fibre-diverse complex carbohydrates a day and 30 different plant-based foods a week. Eating more fibre-foods at every meal and snack will improve overall health and keep our gut bacteria in balance.
2. Benefits of Protein
Protein is needed for muscle and tissue formation, growth and repair of cells and for the formation of many hormones. It can also serve as a fuel source in the absence of carbohydrates.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and whilst the body can manufacture a number of these blocks, there are nine which are considered “essential” meaning they must be obtained from the diet.
How to Include Protein in Our Diets
It is important to obtain these nine amino acids from quality protein sources such as poultry, lean meat, fish, eggs and dairy (if tolerated). These foods are called complete proteins as they contain all nine essential amino acids.
For those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, it is worth noting that buckwheat, quinoa, soy and chia seeds are the only plant-based foods that are a complete protein, with the exception of mycoprotein (better known as Quorn).
It is still possible to obtain all nine essential amino acids by combining a variety of lentils, peas, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits and seaweeds to meet protein requirements, and with the added benefit of fibre-diversity.
Aim to eat three to five portions of protein a day from animal sources. Eating a diverse number of plant-foods will ensure adequate protein intake for vegans and vegetarians.
3. Benefits of Fat
The primary function of fat is to store energy in the body for future use. It also acts as an insulator, protects our vital organs and gives structure to cell membranes, particularly in the brain.
Fat gets a really bad rap and it absolutely shouldn’t as long as we eat the right kind. Restricting fat intake too excessively can cause significant hormone imbalance and mood disorders because certain fatty acids are needed to make our hormones.
Fat is a building block for all steroid hormones which help control metabolism, inflammation, immune function and reproduction. Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are examples of steroid hormones.
Fat is a valuable nutrient because it also helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, and E from other foods. These vitamins are fat-soluble which means they can only be absorbed with the help of fat.
How to Include Healthy Fats in Our Diets
There are some “essential” fats that the body is unable to make so we must obtain these from our diet. These essential fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds.
Healthy fats to include with every meal are monounsaturated fats (eg olive, peanut and sesame oils, avocado, olives and nuts) and polyunsaturated fats (sunflower, safflower and corn oil, fish, seeds) and a small amount of coconut oil.
We should reduce the amount of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol in our diets. These are found in fatty cuts of meat, sausages, bacon, cured meats, cheese, butter, cream, cakes, biscuits, pastries, chocolate, crisps and many highly processed foods.
To balance hormones, promote good gut health and meet nutrition requirements, follow a balanced eating pattern of 3 healthy meals and 2 healthy snacks evenly spaced throughout the day, every day.
A healthy meal means 45–65% of food is from a diverse range of complex, fibre-rich carbohydrates, 10–35% from animal-based and/or plant-based proteins and 20–35% from healthy fats.
If the overall aim is to lose weight, increase your intake of complex carbohydrates, focus on eating nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, and eat less energy than you burn.
As we go through the course, clients will be able to access more specific information on topics such as PCOS, Menopause, Fat loss/increase and many other womens health topics.
Thanks for reading! Stay healthy :)