Women's empowerment relates to women's ability to make life choices (158). Higher levels of empowerment were associated with increased income, household decision-making, control over resources, and utilization of health resources (5, 158–160). For nutrition outcomes, empowerment was associated with increased income allocated to food expenditures and improved household food security (160, 161). It was also associated with increased dietary diversity, but had no impact on women's BMI (5, 161, 162). For example, mothers’ participation in empowerment activities through Helen Keller International's Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) program in Burkina Faso was associated with increased fruit intake (difference-in-differences = 15.8 percentage points, P = 0.02) and nearly statistically significant increases in meat intake and dietary diversity (163). Participation was also associated with decreased prevalence of underweight (difference-in-differences = −8.7 percentage points, P < 0.01) but not overall mean BMI (163). In addition, the EHFP program in Bangladesh and Nepal was associated with decreasing trends in maternal anemia (anemia prevalence decreased by a magnitude of 12%, P = 0.075 in Bangladesh, and 26%, P = 0.009 in Nepal) (160). However, this was not consistent with findings from Cambodia (160).
Nutrition is particularly important when you are pregnant. Weight gain during pregnancy is normal—and it's not just because of the growing fetus; your body is storing fat for lactation. The National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine (NAS/IOM) has determined that a gain of 25 to 35 pounds is desirable. However, underweight women should gain about 28 to 40 pounds, and overweight women should gain at least 15 pounds. The IOM has not given a recommendation for an upper limit for obese women, but some experts cap it as low as 13 pounds. If you fit into this category, discuss how much weight you should gain with your health care professional. Remember that pregnancy isn't the time to diet. Caloric restriction during pregnancy has been associated with reduced birth weight, which can be dangerous to the baby.
Omega-3s: These essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA, play many roles in the body, including building healthy brain and nerve cells. Some studies show that omega-3s, especially DHA, can help prevent preterm births. Even women who don't plan to have children should be sure to get plenty of omega-3s. These healthy oils have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, the number one killer of women.
Women have traditionally been disadvantaged in terms of economic and social status and power, which in turn reduces their access to the necessities of life including health care. Despite recent improvements in western nations, women remain disadvantaged with respect to men. The gender gap in health is even more acute in developing countries where women are relatively more disadvantaged. In addition to gender inequity, there remain specific disease processes uniquely associated with being a woman which create specific challenges in both prevention and health care.
Women's menstrual cycles, the approximately monthly cycle of changes in the reproductive system, can pose significant challenges for women in their reproductive years (the early teens to about 50 years of age). These include the physiological changes that can effect physical and mental health, symptoms of ovulation and the regular shedding of the inner lining of the uterus (endometrium) accompanied by vaginal bleeding (menses or menstruation). The onset of menstruation (menarche) may be alarming to unprepared girls and mistaken for illness. Menstruation can place undue burdens on women in terms of their ability to participate in activities, and access to menstrual aids such as tampons and "sanitary pads". This is particularly acute amongst poorer socioeconomic groups where they may represent a financial burden and in developing countries where menstruation can be an impediment to a girl's education.
So we can applaud some of the efforts of Women’s Health. As editor Amy Keller Laird announced in that Jan/Feb issue, the magazine “will no longer be using fitness models in our monthly ‘15-Minute Workout.’ We’ll feature readers of various body types and sizes,” like the refreshingly normal-sized Morgan Gibson Kanner, hurling a weight plate around in stretchy workout clothes. As progressive as the layout is, Laird points out that “it’s logistically difficult to book nonmodels who have day jobs”; sounds like she should hook up with Willcox’s modeling service.
Downloading that new weight-loss app may not be as beneficial as you think. A study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine rated the top 30 weight-loss apps using criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Diabetes Prevention Plan, which consists of 20 behavior-based strategies, including willpower control, problem solving, stress reduction, motivation, and relapse prevention. Twenty-eight of the programs offered 25 percent or fewer of these essential tummy-trimming tactics. If you’re into tech, use your apps to log food and share your progress on social networks, but don't rely on either too heavily to make lasting lifestyle changes.
Potdar RD, Sahariah SA, Gandhi M, Kehoe SH, Brown N, Sane H, Dayama M, Jha S, Lawande A, Coakley PJ et al. Improving women's diet quality preconceptionally and during gestation: effects on birth weight and prevalence of low birth weight—a randomized controlled efficacy trial in India (Mumbai Maternal Nutrition Project). Am J Clin Nutr 2014;100(5):1257–68.
Before and during pregnancy. You need more of certain nutrients than usual to support your health and your baby’s development. These nutrients include protein, calcium, iron, and folic acid. Many doctors recommend prenatal vitamins or a folic acid supplement during this time. Many health insurance plans also cover folic acid supplements prescribed by your doctor during pregnancy. You also need to avoid some foods, such as certain kinds of fish. Learn more about healthy eating during pregnancy in our Pregnancy section.