Mother’s Day: Women’s Health

By Parul Kharod

In honor of Mother's Day this month, let us talk about health concerns specific for women. Women have some unique nutritional needs based on the stages of the lifecycle including puberty, pregnancy and menopause.


Iron-deficiency anemia affects more women than men. Iron-deficiency anemia means that your body does not have enough iron. We need iron to carry oxygen to all parts of the body. Common symptoms of anemia are fatigue, weakness, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, brittle nails, and pale skin. Anemia may be caused by heavy bleeding during the menstrual cycle and/or not eating enough iron-rich foods. Good sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, beans and pulses, pumpkin seeds, dates, and apricots. Animal sources include all meats. Dairy milk does not have iron; which is why when young children don't eat food and keep drinking milk, they are at a higher risk of anemia. Your body absorbs iron better when you eat iron-rich foods with foods that have vitamin C, such as limes, lemons, oranges and tomatoes. If you take an iron supplement, make sure to take 500 mg of Vitamin C with it. Be aware that iron supplements can cause constipation.

Bone Health

Women are at a higher risk for bone loss and osteoporosis. Lifestyle factors and genetics play an important role in bone health. The nutrients needed for bone health are vitamins (Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Folic Acid, Vitamin D), and minerals (Calcium, Boron, Copper, Fluoride, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorous, Silica, Zinc). Other nutrients include adequate protein and healthy fats. Dairy foods are the best known sources of calcium, but there are a number of other foods that are good sources of calcium also. Plant foods that are naturally good sources of calcium include leafy green vegetables, broccoli, bok choy, tofu, almonds, sesame seeds, black-eyed peas, white beans, pinto beans, and blackstrap molasses. The recommendations for calcium supplements are no more than 500 mg per day. The rest of your calcium should come from foods. It is also important to get enough Vitamin D, do weight-bearing exercises, and limit sodium.

Breast Cancer

Studies show that diet and lifestyle plays an important role in breast cancer prevention. A lifestyle which includes a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and healthy body weight is associated with improved health, even for breast cancer survivors. A cancer prevention diet is one that is high in fiber (whole grains & beans), low in fat (especially animal fat), and includes colorful fruits and vegetables. Foods that fight cancer include, beans, berries, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower), dark green leafy vegetables, yellow and orange fruits & vegetables, flaxseeds, walnuts, ginger and garlic, red grapes, green tea, soy (tofu or non-GMO soy milk), tomatoes, and whole grains. Avoid sugar and simple starches. Limit/avoid dairy and animal protein, especially grilled meats.


The female hormone estrogen begins to decline during menopause. The hormonal changes are responsible for the increases in body fat, and thus weight gain, especially in the midsection. The extra weight increases insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, putting women at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A diet rich in nutrients including healthful fats, adequate protein, and plenty of fruits and vegetables is very important. Regular physical activity can help manage weight and reduce risk of chronic diseases.


PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) is the most common endocrine disorder in females. PCOS is responsible for 70 percent of infertility issues in women who have difficulty ovulating. Teens and post-menopausal women can also suffer from PCOS. It has been linked to increased risk several metabolic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. There is no specific diet for PCOS. Eating small balanced meals at regular intervals helps balance blood sugars and hormone levels. Important foods to include are whole grains, beans, a variety of non-starchy vegetables, and healthy fats from nuts and seeds. Avoid simple starches and sugars. It is advisable to limit processed, refined foods which will raise blood sugars and insulin levels. Keep in mind that the body processes all sugars in the same way. There is no difference between white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses or honey. Regular exercise is important for weight management.


Nutrient needs are increased during pregnancy and lactation. It is important to eat a variety of foods to ensure proper nutrition for the mother and the baby. Asian women are at an increased risk of gestational diabetes. Preeclampsia or high blood pressure is another risk factor. Limiting salt, sugar, and refined starches helps prevent these conditions. Exercise such as walking also helps prevent excessive weight gain. New research for food allergies suggests that mothers should include a wide variety of foods during pregnancy so the baby is exposed to those foods thus preventing the child having allergies later in life.

Thyroid issues

Hypothyroidism or “low thyroid" is another common ailment in women. Along with the right dose of medications, diet plays an important role in balancing hormones. High intake of refined flours and high sugar foods cause swings of high and low blood sugar. This stimulates production of stress hormones which cause impaired thyroid function. A good balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins is very important to improve glucose metabolism. It is advisable to eat more whole grains and avoid simple sugars and refined flours. Adequate soluble fiber from beans, fruits, and vegetables is also beneficial. Most people with thyroid disorders are prone to calcium and vitamin D deficiency, and are at a higher risk of bone loss. Minerals such as magnesium, copper and zinc are necessary for thyroid function. Include a variety of whole grains, beans, and nuts & seeds in your diet, which helps with getting adequate minerals. Fluoride, found in tea, toothpaste, and tap water, is chemically related to iodine and may block iodine receptors in the thyroid. Limit tea to 1-2 cups per day.

Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at