There are times in life when you need to tweak your diet to meet your body’s changing needs. Nutritionist Bronwen King has the lowdown.
As our bodies progress through different life stages such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause, so do our nutritional needs. These needs also change with the demands we might place on our bodies, such as taking upa new sport, upping our usual exercise regimen, or overcoming an injury.
This requires us to pay special attention to our eating habits and what better time than the New Year to reassess our diet and see whether our food choices are working for us.
Get a good foundation
Starting with a healthy baseline diet is important. It ensures the body gets the optimum nutrition that it needs. Once equipped with this basic diet, all you need to do is tweak your food intake when your needs change. (See What is a healthy baseline diet? below.)
Recovering from injury or surgery?
If you have an injury or are recovering from recent surgery, good nutrition helps soothe inflammation which is critical to the healing process.
Eat to ease inflammation
Enjoy more healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish (salmon, tuna and sardines) and fish oil supplements.
Use turmeric (found in many curry powders) which contains curcumin, a proven anti-inflammatory.
Add extra garlic — this helps to shut off pathways that lead to inflammation.
Include antioxidant-rich foods, such as berries, green tea and dark chocolate (four squares of quality chocolate is a healthy portion).
Avoid alcohol, particularly in the early stages of healing, as it slows down recovery.
Eat more protein in the form of fish, lean meat, eggs, legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds once inflammation has died down, as it helps repair damaged tissue.
Ease up on junk food, as this will reduce your kilojoule intake during recovery when you’re less active and burning less energy.
Whether you enjoy regular, moderate exercise or are an elite athlete, good nutrition is fundamental to performance. Stay well-hydrated and eat a balanced diet when participating in gentle exercise. Carbohydrates are a key energy source for those taking part in high-intensity exercise. Vigorous activity lasting 90 minutes or more drains muscles of energising glucose unless the right carbs are eaten before and after exercise.
Eat carbs for energy
Before intensive exercise, eat slow-release carbs like high-fibre breads, cereals or legumes as these foods will provide an even supply of glucose to the muscles.
During lengthy exercise, you may need quick-release carbs for fuel, especially if you’re competing in endurance events like triathlons or marathons. Sports drinks, bars and gels are specially formulated for this but jellybeans work just as well.
After high-intensity exercise, your muscles will recover better if you eat a combination of protein and quick-release carbs as soon as possible. Try a chicken or egg and salad sandwich, banana smoothie or reduced-fat yoghurt.
Do you need protein supplements?
Protein powders may seem convenient but they can be full of additives and high in kilojoules. To meet your protein needs, you’re better off eating eggs, legumes, nuts or lean meat. Endurance athletes and those building up their strength will need extra kilojoules to burn as fuel. Along with protein, add pasta or an extra slice of toast for training fuel.
Trying for a baby?
A mother with good nutrition is more likely to produce a healthy child, but dad plays a role, too. Research is emerging that the father’s diet and lifestyle before conception also influences the health of his offspring.
If you’re planning for a baby, the best advice for both parents is to eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, quit smoking and moderate your alcohol intake.
Mothers should also take folic acid supplements (0.5mg per day, for at least a month) before conception to prevent neural tube defects.
One of the biggest myths for pregnant women is that they should eat for two. In fact, it’s only in the last trimester, during the time of rapid baby growth, that you should slightly increase your kilojoule intake. Pregnancy diet ‘tweaks’ focus on getting the right nutrients for baby growth.
Eat for baby’s health
Increase calcium from 1000mg to 1300mg per day for baby’s bone growth. Just add an extra glass of milk or tub of yoghurt per day to your diet to reach four serves of dairy.
Get enough iron for healthy development of your baby and to prevent iron deficiency in yourself. Lean meats, chicken, seafood and eggs provide iron that’s easily absorbed. Eat plenty of vitamin C from citrus fruit, kiwi fruit and tomatoes to enhance iron absorption from vegetarian sources such as whole grains, chickpeas, beans and lentils.
Continue to take folic acid tablets until 14 weeks into the pregnancy. Getting enough folate can be tricky so it’s best to rely on a supplement.
Take iodine tablets for your baby’s brain development. Both pregnant and breastfeeding women should take a 150mcg iodine-only tablet.
Watch your vitamin A intake because too much can be harmful to baby’s development. Avoid supplements containing vitamin A (including multivitamins and fish-oil supplements) and cut out vitamin A-rich foods such as liver and pâté.
When breastfeeding, it's vital to look after your own health as well as your baby's. You’ll need more kilojoules to produce milk, so it’s natural that your appetite will increase.
It’s common for women to store extra fat during pregnancy in preparation for breastfeeding. Some mothers will lose this fat in the early stages of breastfeeding and some in later weeks, while some won’t lose it until they stop breastfeeding altogether.
It’s important that you avoid crash dieting and instead focus on a well-balanced eating plan which will help you lose any pregnancy fat gradually (no more than a kilo a week).
Drink plenty of water as your body requires extra fluid when it makes breastmilk. Try having a glass of water each time you sit down to breastfeed, and carry a water bottle with you when you leave the house.
While some women sail through this time with ease, others are plagued by distressing symptoms such as hot flushes, brain fog, fatigue and weight gain. As oestrogen levels decline, your risk of osteoporosis and heart disease increases, so it’s important to stay healthy through exercise, stress management and getting plenty of sleep. Remember, strong muscles help support your bones, preventing fractures. There are several important dietary tweaks that can help you cope with menopause.
Eat to avoid osteoporosis
Get enough vitamin D, and if you’re not getting enough from the sun, you may need to take a supplement. Vitamin D helps your body absorb the calcium you eat. A deficiency can lead to bones becoming soft and weak, so it’s a good idea to check your levels with a blood test.
Increase your calcium intake to 1300mg per day by having an extra glass of milk, can of sardines or salmon, or tub of yoghurt each day. As your oestrogen declines, so does its protective effect on your bones, making it common to see a rapid dip in bone density after menopause. While you can’t stop this process entirely, extra calcium in your diet can help slow it down.
Limit your alcohol because drinking too much is also linked to osteoporosis.
Keep active as exercise is essential for healthy bones. Aim to do 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise — which translates roughly to a half-hour session five times a week. Any exercise that has you puffing slightly, such as a brisk walk, counts. Light weights and stretching are also important.
Eat to keep weight in check
Get enough fibre. Aim for at least 25g a day. Because many women in menopause suffer from bloating and other digestive disturbances, eat high-fibre foods that don’t cause wind such as strawberries, kiwi fruit, spinach and asparagus. Chew your food properly and eat slowly as this triggers the release of digestive juices that help to prevent bloating and indigestion.
Watch your portion sizes. Fat accumulating around the belly is more common in menopause and increases your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Make better food choices. Muscle mass decreases with age which results in slower metabolism, so there’s less room for ‘empty-kilojoule’ foods like cakes, biscuits or fried food.
What is a healthy baseline diet?
A balanced diet provides the nutrients you need to stay healthy and will keep your weight on track. Here’s what you should eat:
Mostly fresh, unprocessed foods.
As many non-starchy vegies like carrots and salad greens as you can — the more the better.
Starchy vegies like potatoes, parsnips or sweet potatoes in moderation (they should fill around a quarter of your dinner plate).
Fresh fruit, preferably whole, not juiced.
Foods low in saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Wholegrain breads and cereals (how much depends on how active you are).
Mostly reduced-fat dairy products.
Fish, seafood, poultry, eggs and legumes (beans, chickpeas and lentils).
Small amounts of lean meat. Aim for three to four serves a week, at most.