What to Eat When You’re A Girl
Our health as adult women starts as adolescents. Developing into womanhood, there are certain dietary considerations that are of vital importance as this time period is when adolescent bodies lay the foundation for the rest of their adult lives. Outside of the rapid growth of infancy, adolescence is the second fastest growth period in the life of a woman. This makes ensuring their nutritional status critical, in order to not only provide them with the nutrition they need now, but to support their emerging adulthood.
Of particular nutritional importance for teenage girls is calcium; the body sets down almost half of it’s bone mass during adolescence. Unfortunately many girls cut back on or do not each enough foods with calcium which can potentially lead to osteoporosis later in life. An adolescent girl requires 1,200 mg of calcium every day. This can be obtained through dairy products and dark leafy greens among other food sources. One cup of plain yogurt supplies almost 400 mg of calcium, one cup cow’s milk has almost 300 mg, and one cup of boiled spinach has 244 mg. Vitamin D is an important part of the nutritional process for helping to lay down calcium stores. Given heavy use of sunscreens and potentially less time spent outdoors it may be prudent to test adolescent girls, as part of their well care exams, to ensure their vitamin D levels are appropriate for their needs.
Iron is another vital nutrient. As their bodies adjust to menstruation many young girls may go through excessive menstrual bleeding which can deplete the body of iron. Teens also tend to make unhealthy food choices that do not provide appropriate levels of iron for their growing bodies potentially leading to anemia. Even subclinical levels of anemia can cause extreme fatigue, mental confusion, dizziness, irregular heartbeat or chest pain, and cold extremities. For adolescent girls the daily iron requirement is 15 mg per day. High levels of iron can be found in meat, poultry, dried beans, and dark leafy greens. If needed it is possible to increase the bioavailability of the iron in these foods by adding vitamin C. An example would include adding lemon juice to dark leafy greens such as spinach. One cup of boiled spinach provides just over 6 mg of iron, one cup cooked black beans has slightly more than 3.5 mg, while one cup of cooked navy beans has even more iron at 4.5 mg, and four ounces of broiled beef will supply 4 mg.
B vitamins are fundamental for health; assisting in energy production and supporting the nervous system; they also contribute to hair and eye health. Girls require higher levels of folate than boys. Folate levels are, in part, important due to their requirement for eventual healthy support of pregnancy. The daily requirement for teenage girls is 400 mcg of folate which is available in dark leafy greens, asparagus, liver, broccoli, beets and lentils. One cup of cooked asparagus supplies over 260 mcg of folate while there is 93 mcg in one cup of steamed broccoli, 136 mcg in one cup of cooked beets and almost a full daily requirement, at 357 mcg, in one cup of cooked lentils.
Zinc is a vital mineral for normal sexual maturation for both sexes. It also helps support the immune system and is required for healing wounds. Girls require 12 mcg per day of zinc. It is especially important to consider zinc levels for those adolescent girls who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Many teens may not properly balance their diet and vegetarian diets can be very low in zinc. This is in spite of the fact that zinc is readily found in whole grains and legumes, nuts and seeds. Many teens, many adults for that matter, do not eat enough whole grains or legumes, not to mention raw nuts and seeds. While calf’s liver and beef provide the highest sources of zinc at 10.8 mcg and 6.3 mcg respectively, one cup of green peas can provide almost 2 mcg, one cup of plain yogurt supplies slightly more than 2 mcg, and ¼ cup of raw pumpkin seeds provides just over 2.5 mcg.
Other healthy habits that are essential for adolescents girls are to ensure that they get adequate sleep as growth and other health hormones are released during sleep. It is also crucial that they get enough physical activity; guidelines suggest 60 minutes every day of aerobic activity. This includes bike riding, dancing, and jogging, as well as some strength training exercises to help promote healthy muscle mass.
Limiting the amount of sugar, and unhealthy fats in the diet while potentially challenging is critical. These are substances which can suppress the immune system leading to an array of health problems that include cardiac disease, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis.
Last, but certainly not least, hydration. Many people do not realize how dehydrated they really are or how crucial hydration is to overall health. Drinking adequate fluids and limiting unhealthy substances such as coffee drinks (think frappuccinos which are popular with adolescents but have as much caffeine as three cans of soda) and soda (the body pulls calcium from the bones to neutralize the acidity in the soda) is important. While many young girls may not like the taste of plain water it is easy to jazz it up with citrus, mint, or cucumber. Another alternative is to add a splash of 100% no sugar added juice to seltzer water to make a fizzy, healthy, hydrating drink.
Following a healthy diet and encouraging healthy habits will provides the best support for adolescent girls to grow into healthy women.
This article is written by Mira Dessy on behalf of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP). NANP’s mission is to unify the holistic nutrition profession, educate and serve our members and protect the holistic nutrition professional’s right to practice. We aim to accomplish this by building integrity and credibility through a national certification process based on high educational standards and a rigorous code of ethics. For more information about NANP, please visit www.nanp.org.
Mira Dessy is a Certified Nutrition Educator and Real Food Advocate who emphasizes a healthy lifestyle and eating whole foods. She is a professional member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals, the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and the American Holistic Health Association. She speaks frequently to laypeople and nutrition professionals on how to navigate the grocery store’s mammoth packaged food stock, to decipher confusing food labels, and to choose healthy convenience foods. Her motto is “Eat well to be well.” Learn more about Mira at http://grainsandmore.com.