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By: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD
The first step in any healthy diet is eating a balanced variety of foods, so everyone should start there. But for women, science is showing that there are some foods that can help ward off osteoporosis, heart disease, breast cancer, and even tone down a hot flash or two. Find seven “wonder women” foods and recipes to get them cooking in your kitchen.
Ripe and juicy, heirloom and cherry tomatoes are an easy food to love. So it's just icing on the cake that observational studies suggest lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes may play a role in warding off breast and cervical cancers. Since no clinical trials have tested the hypothesis, it's not proof positive. And maybe the protection comes from a diet rich in vegetables rather than just one vegetable. If that's the case, consider tomatoes for heart health. After following nearly 40,000 women, Boston researchers conclude lycopene or other phytochemicals eaten as oil-based tomato products may protect against cardiovascular disease.
The right dose: To be determined. But cooking tomatoes, and adding oil, makes lycopene and other antioxidants more readily available.
A "hot" ingredient in foods targeted to women, scientists are teasing out three potentially beneficial compounds in flax: plant based omega 3 fats, fiber, and disease-fighting compounds called lignans. A Mayo Clinic study finds 40 grams of crushed flaxseed can cut down on hot flashes, and several reports suggest flax can lower "bad" or LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. (Interestingly, in one Chinese study, the cholesterol-lowering impact was more pronounced in women.) The brown or gold seeds may even play a role in fighting breast cancer. One caution: if you're pregnant or nursing, some experts suggest avoiding flax until more studies are done.
The right dose: 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day since whole seeds aren't readily digested.
An underappreciated leafy green, kale is chock-full of a lot of good things for health in general, and some for women in particular. Antioxidants like lutein and zeazanthin protect the eye. Add to that a day's worth of vitamin C and small amounts of calcium. But tag its womanly superstar status to vitamin K, a potent bone builder. Researchers find that women who eat diets rich in vitamin K are at lower risk of hip fracture. Seems the body requires vitamin K to activate bone proteins needed to ward off osteoporosis, the crippling bone disease that strikes women four times more often than men.
The right dose: At 36 calories per cup cooked, the sky's the limit.
While the omega 3 fats in salmon do everyone a lot of good, women net a few unique benefits. Pregnant? Studies find the oils in fatty fish like salmon can help you beat the post-partum blues, particularly if you ratchet up intake during the third trimester. Building blocks for the brain and nervous system, omega 3 fats are also critical for the developing fetus. In your forties and beyond? Keep in mind that heart disease is still the number one killer of women. And once estrogen levels begin to plummet, eating fatty fish can help keep the ticker healthy.
The right dose: Two servings (about 4 ounces) of salmon, or other fatty fish, per week.
Sometimes natural cures really do work because when it comes to treating women's urinary tract infections, cranberry juice is a recommended strategy. Not because it's acidic or has a lot of vitamin C. Instead, antioxidants called proanthocyanins are the real medicinal heroes. These tannins prevent bacteria from adhering to the walls of the bladder where they can multiply and cause, or intensify, an infection. This just in: New studies are testing concentrated cranberry extracts and finding they can also help fight UTI's. No word on when these could be available, so stick to berries or juice for now.
The right dose: Varies. But drink unsweetened 100% cranberry juice (60 calories per cup) to avoid excess sugar.
Thick and creamy, Greek yogurt offers double the protein of most yogurts and far less sugar. The lower carb levels (7 grams versus 25 grams in fruited yogurt) help keep blood sugar on an even keel. But protein may be the real advantage since many women have no clue, or rarely think about, how much protein they eat. And they should. Studies suggest that eating higher levels of protein (30 percent of calories) helps women with weight loss, muscle maintenance, and promotes healthier aging. The Institute of Medicine suggests 0.8 grams per kg body weight or 68 grams for a 150-pound woman.
The right dose: Any amount. At a skinny 90 calories per six ounces and zero fat, it's a perfect portable snack.
Noshing on a handful of walnuts may fight both breast cancer and osteoporosis. In one new study, just two ounces of walnuts per day helped delay development of breast cancer and slow tumor growth in mice. Speculation is antioxidants called phytosterols, already known cancer fighters, could be the culprit. Or protective benefits might come from plant based omega 3 fats (walnuts are the only nut to harbor these fats.) If it's the latter, another study finds diets rich in these same plant based omega 3s are adept at preventing excessive bone turnover which keeps bones strong and healthy.
The right dose: Since nuts are calorie dense, one ounce (20 halves/185 calories) is a good place to start.