Science exploring the benefits of a nutrient rich diet has boomed over the last decade. From fecal transplants, to fermented foods, we know more now than we ever have about the link between what we eat, and the impact this has on our body and mind. Despite knowing so much, it can be tricky to sift through all that information and figure out what’s right for you.

Discovering what foods will help you feel fantastic and what foods will leave you feeling lousy can take time, and it often involves a process of ‘trial and error’. At hormonally, we’re not here to give you advice on how to loose weight, or tell you you can’t treat yourself every now and then. The information on this page, is all about drawing on the evidence that supports sustainable smart decisions.

Healthy eating habits are not about being on a diet. It’s about balancing the food you eat in the long term to keep your body – and your mind – strong, energized and feeling its best. It’s small shifts that make big changes.

It’s important to stress that women have particular nutritional needs and these needs vary in subtle ways over the course of our lifetime. So, whether you’re interested in general well-woman healthy eating, you want to know what foods can help your PMS symptoms, you’re looking for nutrition advice during pregnancy, or you want to learn about menopause-friendly foods, Hormonally’s got you covered.

You can choose the heading that suits you best, but don’t miss the handy tips in our all-age healthy eating basics too!

What do women need from their diet?

Once we hit puberty our dietary needs start to differ. This is due to the ways our bodies change and the fact that our periods begin, meaning we lose blood, which affects our iron levels.

As we age and experience significant changes to our bodies (such as pregnancy or menopause), our nutritional needs continue to evolve. It’s important to understand what these changing needs are, and adapt what we eat to help support our bodies during these times.

Women require some vitamins and minerals in greater quantities than men. This is because of the additional risks we have of certain conditions.

We need to protect ourselves from anemia (a lack of iron sometimes due to heavy periods), and the bone weakening condition, osteoporosis, which women are at greater risk of around menopause.
Because of this, women need greater quantities of:

Just taking supplements for these isn’t enough… we need all this good stuff from the food we eat too. Our diet is the best way to intake these vitamins and minerals.

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Healthy eating habits are important to adopt throughout your lifetime, whatever age or stage of life you’re at. Incorporating these routines from an early age, will mean you are well prepared for a happy and healthy future.

Here are some small changes you can make today, that will have a positive impact on your future health:

  • Eat 3 meals per day, at regular times.
  • Eat a variety of foods at each meal covering a range of different food groups (fruit, veg, protein, dairy, healthy fats, grains).
  • Avoid skipping meals and becoming overly hungry.
  • Plan and prepare meals in advance to swerve impulsive quick-fix snacking.
  • Learn more about healthy cooking. Creating a go-to repertoire of easy, tasty recipes you and your loved ones enjoy is a great start.
  • Listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re feeling satisfied.
  • Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Sometimes thirst is misinterpreted as hunger.
  • Have meat-free day/s every week.
  • Cut down on foods that have a high sugar or salt content.
  • Reduce the amount of processed snacks, microwave meals, or takeout you have. The goal is not about removing these treats completely, but if this is your go to for you, try to think about whether you could reduce the days you opt for easy instead of cooking from scratch.
  • Learn about healthy fats and how to enjoy these foods. It’s best where possible to avoid trans and saturated fats.
  • Eat in a mindful way, noticing what you’re eating. Try to think about how the food tastes, and why you’re eating it (am I hungry/stressed/sad/bored?)
  • Avoid ‘diet thinking’. When it comes to losing weight, there’s no quick fix, and there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. It’s about balance and introducing small changes you can stick to for life. A change in language can be helpful here. Instead of calling particular foods ‘bad’, you may start thinking of that food as a special occasion food, or a treat food.
Nutrition tips to ease PMS symptoms

If you struggle with bloating, cramping, and fatigue in the week or so before and during your period, making some changes to your diet may help some of these symptoms. Keep a food diary to learn more about your PMS symptoms, when they happen, and what you’re eating during those times.

Here are some things to boost and avoid in the run up to your period:

  • Include foods high in iron and zinc such as red meat, liver, eggs, leafy green veg, and dried fruit.
  • Increase calcium rich foods like milk, yogurt, cheese and leafy green veg.
  • Try ground flaxseed sprinkled into yogurt, smoothies, salads, or added to baked goods.
  • Cut down on salty foods. This can really help with bloating.
  • Avoid trans fats, deep fried foods and high sugar foods. These are inflammatory foods and some people find they worsen PMS symptoms.
  • Check if you have any food sensitivities such as dairy or wheat as these can trigger PMS symptoms. Reduce the amount of caffeine and alcohol you have each day, as these can worsen PMS symptoms.

As well as these tips, some people find introducing supplements containing magnesium, vitamin B6, vitamin E and Omega 3 helpful in improving PMS symptoms.

Making sure you get enough iron when you have your period is important as we lose iron from our bodies when we bleed. Iron is key to helping your blood carry oxygen. It also helps keep your skin, hair and nails healthy too.

When you don’t get enough iron, you’ll feel weaker, more exhausted, and you may get out of breath more easily. Low iron can also lower your mood and make you feel more cranky. The most common type of iron deficiency is called anemia. Lots of women have anemia as our ordinary diets usually don’t contain enough iron.

Red meat contains a lot of iron, but many women want to avoid this for health reasons. You can also get iron from leafy green vegetables, beans, poultry, seafood, dried fruit and cereals and breads that are fortified with iron. This type of iron is however, not as well absorbed by the body as that from red meat. If you are struggling to get enough iron from your diet alone, it may be worth taking an iron supplement, especially if you’ve been diagnosed as iron deficient.

You may have heard of folate (otherwise known as vitamin B9 or folic acid) as a supplement pregnant women need. While this is true, folate is also an essential nutrient that all women of reproductive age need, regardless of whether or not they’re pregnant.

Not getting enough folate can leave you feeling irritable and fatigued. It can affect your concentration and make you more susceptible to low mood and headaches.

The FDA recommends all women take 400mcg of folate daily, and this rises to 600mcg if you’re pregnant and 500mcg if you’re breastfeeding.

You can get folate from leafy green vegetables, fruit and fruit juice, nuts, beans and peas, and it’s also added to many grain-based products such as cereals, bread, and pasta.

Benefits of folate:

  • it helps form red blood cells
  • it makes and repairs our DNA
  • it helps with healthy brain function and our nervous system
  • it helps lower your risk of heart disease
  • it helps lower your risk of certain types of cancer
  • it reduces the chance of neurological birth defects during pregnancy

So, even if a pregnancy isn’t on the cards, you’ll be doing your body a favor by making sure you get enough of this important vitamin.

When pregnant

‘Eating for two’ is a bit of a myth. However, it is important that you eat regularly and have a well balanced diet when you’re expecting.

Here are some tips for healthy eating when you’re pregnant:

  • Think about your food balance over the whole week, rather than worrying if every meal contains all of the important food groups.
  • Try to cut out smoking and alcohol as well as keeping caffeine to a minimum.
  • Eating smaller meals more regularly can help prevent morning sickness and heartburn.
  • Be aware of the foods that can cause problems in pregnancy, such as soft cheeses, sushi, deli meats, and some fish.
  • Having lots of fruit and vegetables will help to make sure you get enough of the vitamins, minerals and fiber that you need. It will also reduce constipation if you’re prone to this too. Don’t forget, fruit and veg includes frozen, canned, dried and juiced too.
  • Starchy carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles etc.) will help give you the energy you need. These carbohydrates also contain plenty of vitamins and fiber. It’s best to choose brown options rather than refined white options. These have a more even release of glucose that doesn’t produce such a spike then dip in your blood sugar levels.
  • Protein is key in pregnancy, especially for the development of a baby’s brain and nervous system. You get protein from beans, pulses, fish, eggs, poultry, nuts and dairy so it doesn’t have to be just red meat. Make sure any meat you do eat is cooked well through.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the brain and visual development of a baby and for bringing in breast milk after birth. Omega-3s can be found mostly in fish and seafood. If you can, aim to eat fish like sardines, anchovies, mackerel, trout, salmon or tuna 1-2 times a week.  If you’re vegan, or don’t like fish, there are plant-based sources of Omega-3s such as flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola and soybean oils.
  • Dairy foods are great sources of calcium and provide other nutrients needed during your pregnancy. If you use dairy alternatives, try and opt for unsweetened ones and those that have calcium added. Find out about which cheeses to avoid if you’re a cheese lover; it’s generally the unpasteurized, soft types of cheese.

When breastfeeding

You may need to eat a bit more food than normal when you’re breastfeeding, in order to help your body keep up its milk supply. Focus on the protein and calcium sources already described, as you have a higher requirement for both of these when you’re breastfeeding.
If you’ve been taking prenatal vitamin supplements, keep taking them after you give birth (unless your physician tells you otherwise). The same advice goes for cutting out alcohol, nicotine and any other drugs, as well as limiting your caffeine intake when you’re breastfeeding.

If your baby develops an allergic reaction, you may need to adjust your diet.

Common food allergens in young babies and children include:

  • cow’s milk
  • eggs
  • wheat
  • fish
  • citrus

It can be tricky to spot allergies, particularly in babies, but there are signs to look out for. If your baby is struggling to settle after feeding, you notice any skin reactions (such as raised red patches), or you see any other type of rash, speak to your healthcare provider about organising an allergy test for your baby. If your child is allergic or reacting to milk or other foods, ask for advice from your doctor on what alternatives you can explore.

In the 10 years before you reach menopause, the change in your hormone levels causes metabolic shifts to happen. These metabolic changes alter what you need nutritionally and how your body responds to the foods you eat.

The following advice is particularly important around the time of perimenopause (the time leading up to menopause where you are experiencing symptoms) and menopause, but it can be followed at any time of life as the basic principles of healthy eating are the same when it come to reducing your risk of future health conditions.

Mediterranean style diet

This type of diet consistently ranks top in research in terms of living a long life, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing future health risks, and providing the best quality of life. But what is the Mediterranean diet?

The features of a Mediterranean style diet include:

  • a variety of plant based options and vegetables as well as healthy sources of protein.
  • some staples are:
    • wholegrains
    • seafood and fish
    • legumes
    • pulses
    • beans
    • nuts and seeds
    • herbs and spices
    • fermented dairy (yogurt and cheese)
    • and lots of extra virgin olive oil
  • meat is included less regularly ( 1-2x a week or less)
  • equally, it does not contain a lot of foods that are
    • processed (e.g. microwave meals, burgers, chips, cookies, crackers)
    • high in salt (cereals, bread, cured meats, pizza)
    • high in sugar (fruit juice, ketchup, sweets, chocolate, soda)
  • high in trans and saturated fats (fried food, spreads, cheese, fatty meat)

The Mediterranean way of eating is usually high in fiber, contains plenty of prebiotics which help to support a healthy gut, has anti-inflammatory effects, and is high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

If you’re not a big fan of vegetables, here are some tips just for you:

  • find one or two vegetables you do like and experiment with different ways of preparing them
  • start adding these to your go-to meals rather than cutting other foods out initially
  • slowly reduce the quantity or number of times you’re having meat or processed meals
  • think about your snacks: swap chips, chocolate, cookies, and cake for nuts and dried fruit

Nutrients to prioritize around menopause

Calcium: this is key for keeping your bones strong and healthy and also in helping with your mood and sleep.
Calcium works in partnership with magnesium and vitamin D.
It’s found in dairy foods, leafy green vegetables, grains, tofu, summer squash, and many more.

You need 1000mg per day if you’re 19-50 years, and 1200mg per day if you’re over 50 years.

Magnesium: this helps you to absorb calcium from the blood into the bone in order to keep the bones strong. It also helps to balance glucose and may calm the nervous system, helping with headaches.  Good sources of magnesium include leafy green vegetables, summer squash, broccoli, cucumber, green beans, celery, and a variety of seeds.

The USDA recommends a magnesium daily allowance in women over 30 to be 320mg per day.

Vitamin D: is also crucial for a proper uptake of calcium which is important for your bone health.

Vitamin D helps your muscles and teeth stay strong. It also helps to keep your skin clear of breakouts. Some evidence suggests vitamin D may also provide a boost to your mood and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.

In the summer months, you’ll get vitamin D from sunlight if your skin is regularly exposed. If you don’t get enough sun however, or you tend to stay indoors or covered up, you may want to take a vitamin D supplement, as it can be hard to get all that you need from diet or sun exposure alone. Most people when tested are actually vitamin D deficient.

Aim for 600 IU (international units) daily if you’re between 19-70 years, and for over 70s they need more at 800 IU per day.

B vitamins can help with energy, our mental health and the overall impact of our sex hormones, especially B6 and B12.

Most plant-based foods have B vitamins.  Good sources of B12 are dairy, eggs, seafood and chicken.

The US recommended daily allowance of vitamin B6 is 1.3mg if you’re under 50, and 1.5mg if you’re over 50 years. For B12 it’s 2.4mcg at any adult age.

Anti-inflammatory nutrients (polyphenols): you can get these as a supplement, but all plant sources of food contain polyphenols.

Polyphenols are plant compounds that are good for your gut bacteria and have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.  Apples and red onions for example contain quercetin, which is a great polyphenol.

Phytoestrogens: some plant foods contain a type of estrogen called phytoestrogen. This estrogen is weaker than the estrogen produced in your ovaries (and that which is prescribed in hormone therapy (HT)), but plant sources of estrogen may still help if your body’s suffering.

Good sources of phytoestrogens include:

  • tofu/soy
  • chickpeas
  • ground flax or linseeds
  • chia seeds
  • raw almonds

Healthy fats like Omega 3 and Omega 6 (or vegan DHA equivalents): we have already talked about the importance of omega 3 during pregnancy, but these healthy fats remain important around and after menopause, as they act as anti-inflammatories and have multiple benefits in the body.

Best to avoid around menopause if you can

Here’s a quick rundown of foods and substances best reduced in menopause, as they can trigger or worsen symptoms and may increase your risk of health conditions in the future:

  • alcohol, nicotine and other drugs
  • caffeine
  • white flour products such as white bread, rice and pasta
  • foods high in salt, sugar, trans or saturated fats.

Healthy Habits

No matter what stage of life you’re in, adopting healthy eating habits can make a big difference to your overall sense of wellbeing. If you struggle with planning out meals or making decisions about how, or what may be best for you to eat, it could be worth talking to a nutritionist.

Working with someone that can help you address your eating habits can be life changing. It’s easy to feel like we should be able to manage healthy eating on our own, but eating behaviors are complicated, and it can be difficult to address them without support. It’s OK to ask for help with this. There are lots of professionals that can work with you to feel more in control of your nutrition.