Nutrition advice these days seems to involve more numbers than the average tax return. Twenty-five grams of fiber, 1,200 milligrams of calcium, 400 micrograms of folic acid, no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat -- there's no shortage of calculations to memorize in the name of good health. But how do these numbers translate into actual food? Will a glass of milk and a cup of yogurt fulfill your daily calcium requirement? If you don't eat meat, do you need to devour a whole vegetable garden to meet your daily iron requirement of 15 milligrams? Will you max out on saturated fat simply by eating a burger and fries?
Fortunately, it doesn't take a degree in accounting to make sense of the numbers touted by nutrition experts. You simply need to become familiar with the best sources of key nutrients, and scrutinize your own diet to judge whether you're falling short. (Or enter everything you eat and drink for three days into an online nutrition calculator.)
To show you what it takes to meet your requirements for the nutrients that women tend to be deficient in, we enlisted the help of Jackie Berning, Ph.D., R.D., an assistant professor of nutrition at Colorado State University. For each nutrient, Berning has provided three examples (at least one vegetarian) that all meet your needs. However, you need not memorize the nutrient values for every food you eat. The best strategy is to expand the variety of foods you regularly consume. "Women need to go beyond chicken breast and rice cakes," Berning says. "The more varied your diet, the more likely you are to get all of your nutrients in."
Why it's so important Without enough iron, bone marrow can't produce enough red blood cells, and you can develop anemia, which leaves you weak, short of breath, irritable and prone to infection. Slow to develop, it often goes undiagnosed.
Recommended for women 15 mg
How much the typical woman gets 11 mg
Tips for boosting your intake Iron from meat is absorbed more readily than iron from plant sources like beans, peas and nuts. To increase your absorption of plant-based iron, consume such foods with vitamin-C-rich foods and beverages: Drink orange juice with breakfast cereal or put extra tomatoes on your bean burrito. If you're diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor will likely recommend a supplement.
Example #1 total: 16 mg
1 cup instant oatmeal: 16 mg (141 calories)
Example #2 total: 16 mg
1 cup cooked frozen spinach: 3 mg (53 calories)
1 cup kidney beans: 5 mg (225 calories)
1 plain bagel: 3 mg (195 calories)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds: 5 mg (411 calories)
Example #3 total: 15.5 mg
3 ounces lean sirloin steak: 3 mg (166 calories)
1 cup canned apricots (in water): 1.5 mg (50 calories)
1 cup Cream of Wheat cereal: 11 mg (123 calories)
Why it's so important A high-fiber diet reduces heart-disease risk and can help control your weight by making you feel fuller.
Recommended for women 25-35 mg
How much the typical woman gets 11 mg
Tips to boost your intake The less processed a food, the greater its fiber content. So eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Look for "whole wheat" on bread labels and compare the fiber contents. Some brands contain up to 5 grams per slice.
Example #1 total: 32 g
1 cup C.W. Post cereal with raisins: 14 g (446 calories)
1/2 cup baked beans, canned: 9 g (165 calories)
1 cup broccoli: 5 g (44 calories)
1 pear: 4 g (98 calories)
Example #2 total: 35 g
1 cup Cracklin' Oat Bran Cereal: 8 g (230 calories) with 1 sliced banana: 3 g (105 calories)
1 3/4 cups lentil soup: 9 g (263 calories)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds: 8 g (410 calories)
1 apple: 4 g (81 calories)
1 orange: 3 g (62 calories)
Example #3 total: 28 g
1/2 cup raspberries, 1/2 cup blueberries, 3/4 cup strawberries: 8 g (104 calories)
2 slices Bran for Life whole-wheat bread: 10 g (160 calories)
2 medium carrots: 4 g (62 calories)
1/2 cup peanuts, dry roasted: 6 g (427 calories)
Why it's so important Adequate calcium is vital to prevent osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease that leads to 1.5 million fractures a year. (Weight-bearing exercise and vitamin D are also key.) Women start to lose bone mass in their 30s, so calcium is particularly important for women in peak bone-building years.
Recommended for pre-menopausal women 1,200 mg
How much the typical woman gets 640 mg
Tips for boosting your intake Consume nonfat dairy products, and drink calcium-fortified orange juice (it has as much calcium as a glass of milk). Supplement with calcium pills or chews.
Example #1 total: 1,229 mg
2 cups nonfat milk: 604 mg (171 calories)
1 cup chocolate pudding: 235 mg (242 calories)
1 ounce Parmesan cheese: 390 mg (129 calories))
Example #2 total: 1,242 mg
1 cup Total cereal: 333 mg (147 calories) with 1 cup nonfat milk: 302 mg (86 calories)
1 cup cooked spinach: 277 mg (53 calories)
1 cup calcium-fortified orange juice: 330 mg (110 calories)
Example #3 total: 1,218 mg
1 cup instant oatmeal: 271 mg (141 calories)
1 cup calcium-fortified chocolate soy milk: 300 mg (108 calories)
3 ounces canned salmon: 487 mg (314 calories)
1 cup collard greens: 160 mg (60 calories)
Why it's so important Protein-rich foods provide the amino acids to build and repair muscles. A protein/carb combo will keep you satisfied longer than a carb snack alone.
Recommended for wome n The government's Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For a 140-pound woman, that's about 56 grams. But experts agree that exercisers need more. Active women may need as much as 0.5-0.7 grams per pound of body weight, or about 70-100 grams of protein per day.
How much the typical woman gets 66 g
Tips for boosting your intake Buy extra-lean cuts of meat and nonfat dairy products to limit saturated fat. Other good sources: soybean products, like soy protein and tofu.
Example #1 total: 96 g
2 cups nonfat milk: 17 g (171 calories)
2 scrambled eggs: 12 g (149 calories) with 1 slice wheat toast: 3 g (69 calories)
Tuna sandwich with 3 ounces white albacore tuna: 20 g (109 calories) and 2 slices wheat bread: 6 g (138 calories)
3 ounces roasted skinless chicken breast: 26 g (140 calories)
1 ounce jack cheese: 7 g (106 calories)
1 baked potato: 3 g (145 calories) with 1 ounce Weight Watchers sour cream: 2 g (35 calories)
Example #2 total: 94 g
Smoothie with 1 cup nonfat milk: 8 g (86 calories), 1 banana: 1 g (105 calories), and 1 cup vanilla-flavored soy protein powder: 14 g (99 calories)
1/2 cup dry roasted peanuts: 17 g (427 calories)
3 ounces tofu: 6 g (51 calories)
Bean and rice burrito with 1 1/2 cups black beans: 23 g (341 calories), 1/2 cup brown rice: 3 g (126 calories) and 1 Mission flour tortilla: 4 g (146 calories)
2 cups spaghetti: 10 g (310 calories) with 3 ounces clams: 6 g (31 calories) and 1/2 cup tomato sauce: 2 g (37 calories)
Example #3 total: 103 g
1 cup nonfat vanilla Yoplait yogurt: 11 g (210 calories)
1 slice whole-wheat toast: 3 g (69 calories) with 2 ounces light Cheddar cheese: 18 g (91 calories)
1 cup turkey chili with beans: 19 g (400 calories)
1 plain bagel: 8 g (195 calories) with 1/2 cup hummus: 6 g (210 calories)
2 ounces canned salmon: 38 g (314 calories)
Why it's so important: Folic acid, a B vitamin, can drastically reduce the risk of giving birth to a baby with brain and spinal-cord defects. Such defects often begin developing in the first month of pregnancy, before most women know they're pregnant. You need plenty of folic acid in your body before you conceive.
Recommended for women 400 mcg
How much the typical woman gets 186 mcg
Tips for boosting your intake Good folic-acid sources include dark-green leafy vegetables, orange juice and wheat germ. Many grain products are now fortified with it. Folic acid is destroyed by heat, prolonged storage and reheating of leftovers. To be safe, you may want to take a supplement.
Example #1 total: 430 mcg
1 cup cooked asparagus: 242 mcg (50 calories)
2 scrambled eggs: 35 mcg (149 calories)
3/4 cup cooked spinach: 153 mcg (40 calories)
Example #2 total: 394 mcg
2 cups romaine lettuce: 152 mcg (18 calories)
1 cup cooked broccoli: 78 mcg (44 calories)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds: 164 mcg (410 calories)
Example #3 total: 431 mcg
1 1/2 cups cooked lentils: 179 mcg (115 calories)
1 1/2 cups calcium-fortified orange juice: 120 mcg (165 calories)
1 cup cooked beets: 132 mcg (76 calories)
Saturated fat: Are you eating too much?
More important than total fat intake is your intake of saturated fat (the artery-clogging kind). Experts recommend limiting it to 10 percent of your daily calories. So, if you're eating 2,000 calories a day (reasonable for an active woman) you shouldn't exceed 200 calories of saturated fat (about 22 grams) a day. It's found mainly in animal products like meat, dairy foods and butter, so look for the leanest varieties. It's equally important to limit trans fats, created through hydrogenation, a process that turns liquid oils into solids. Because trans fats are not yet listed on nutrition labels (watch for them in about two years), your best bet is to limit solid fats, as well as fried foods and processed baked goods, which often contain saturated or trans fats. Here's how easy it is to max out on saturated fat.
1 McDonald's baked apple pie: 3.5 g (260 calories)
1 Big Mac: 10 g (560 calories)
1 large fries: 4 g (450 calories)
Total: 17.5 g (1,270 calories)
1 Burger King Double Whopper with cheese
26 g (1,010 calories)
Sandwich with 2 ounces cheddar cheese: 12 g, 2 ounces ham: 1 g, and 1 tablespoon reduced-calorie mayo: 1 g (582 calories)
2 ounces potato chips: 6 g (303 calories)
1 cup low-fat chocolate milk: 5 g (190 calories)
Total: 25 g (1,075 calories)
1 Belgian waffle with whipped topping and 2 sausage links
23 g (492 calories)