Filed under: Nutrition
The month of October is Military Health System’s Women’s Health Month. There are more than 350,000 female members of the military (16% of the total military force). While it’s important for all military members to consume nutritious diets, women have special nutrient needs: iron, folic acid, and calcium.
Iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency among women. Poor dietary intake of iron combined with intense physical activity can lead to fatigue, weakness, and pale skin—all signs of iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). Iron-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, spinach, beans, and fortified cereals. Consume these foods with vitamin C–rich foods such as strawberries and oranges for better iron absorption. HPRC discusses other reasons for IDA in this article on “Iron deficiency.”
Folic acid. Women of childbearing age need enough folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects. But even if you’re not pregnant, folic acid helps make blood cells that boost your immune system. Folic acid can be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, peas, and fortified cereals and bread.
Calcium. Compared to men, women are at greater risk for osteoporosis, in which bones become weak and are more likely to break. Women need to start getting more calcium at an early age to keep bones strong. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products, tofu, kale, and fortified cereals and juices. Vitamin D is also important to help the absorption of calcium. Read more about vitamin D in HPRC’s Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.”
All of these nutrients can be found in supplement form, but as with any dietary supplement, consult your doctor first to determine if they are necessary and safe. For more information on supplements, read HPRC’s “Women's health and dietary supplements.” Remember, most people can achieve adequate intake of these nutrients with a balanced diet. Poor nutrition puts you at risk for injuries and makes it harder for you to perform at your best.
If you’d like to know more about women’s health, visit the Military Health System's web page.
Coconut water, the flavorful liquid found in young green coconuts, has become a popular drink. It is often promoted for a variety of ailments—from curing bad skin to resolving hangovers. But coconut water is also touted as a fluid replacement alternative. For this reason, some Warfighters choose coconut water over sports beverages because coconut water is “natural” and contains carbohydrates and key electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. However, not all brands of coconut water are created equal. In fact, they can vary considerably in terms of their nutrient content, so read product labels to be sure you’re getting the right amounts of nutrients you need for optimal performance. In addition, many kinds of coconut water contain fruit juice for flavor, which can increase the sugar and calorie content of the drink.
One of the biggest appeals of coconut water is its naturally high potassium content. While the potassium content is high, the amounts of carbohydrate and sodium in coconut water are sometimes very low, and individuals who participate in prolonged, vigorous exercise (longer than an hour) may need more carbohydrate and sodium for proper hydration. For more information about hydration needs, see HPRC’s infosheet on fluids and exercise.
For periods of exercise less than one hour, water is always your best choice—about 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes. But for longer periods of exercise, sports beverages are a good choice because they are specially formulated to replenish carbohydrate, sodium, and potassium lost during extended and/or vigorous physical activity. If you choose sports beverages, drink 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes to stay hydrated. Again, be sure to read the product label to make sure your drink has what you need, and nothing more. For more information about proper fueling, read An Athlete’s Guide to Nutrient Timing.
And what about that coconut water? There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the use of coconut water as a remedy for any condition. And although it’s a tasty beverage, know what’s in it so you can replenish what your body needs—no more, no less.
Many of us have seen foods labeled as organic, but most people don’t know what that means. In order to be considered organic, foods must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and meet certain standards. Generally, organic foods must be produced without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. As a result, organic foods have become quite popular.
Because of the differences in production, organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods. For example, the average price of a gallon of regular milk is $2.89, but the average price of a gallon of organic milk is $5.99. That’s more than double the cost, which may not be affordable for many people. For military families who prefer to buy organic foods, discounted prices may be available at their local commissary. Ask grocery stores and wholesale stores about military discounts and coupons. For those who qualify, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) allows organic fruits and vegetables to be purchased with cash-value vouchers. The eligibility of other foods is state-dependent, and each state’s approved food list can be found on USDA's WIC page.
The price difference between organic and conventional foods is clear, but the benefits of choosing organic are not as obvious. Organic foods are thought to be better for the environment and our bodies. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is not enough evidence to suggest a clear benefit to purchasing organic foods over conventional foods. If pesticides are your concern, visit the Environmental Working Group website to learn more.
So, the next time you’re trying to decide between organic and non-organic, remember that nutritional differences don’t need to be a major factor in your decision because there don’t appear to be any. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is beneficial no matter which option you choose.
For more information on organic foods, check out USDA's website.
For some people, eating certain foods can cause serious allergic reactions, even death! The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, fish and shellfish, tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soy. Other food allergies are possible, so it’s important to read food labels for ingredient information if you are at risk. Click here for more information.
School has started, and the scramble to come up with interesting and appealing lunches for your children probably has, too. If you find you’re bored with the “ham sandwich, apple, and a cookie” routine shortly after the first bell, imagine how bored your child’s taste buds will be in a few weeks! Keeping your child interested in healthy eating is as easy as ABC (and D).
Adventure: Offer your child some variety. Choose high-fiber, whole-grain tortillas or breads for sandwiches and opt for tasty spreads such as salsa, hummus, or pesto for extra flavor. Lean roasted meats such as chicken or turkey are healthy, lean sources of protein; or try fat-free refried beans for an appealing vegetarian option. Tuck some lettuce and tomatoes in for fun, flavor, and nutrients. (Keep wraps and bread from getting soggy by wrapping veggies in meat slices.) Your child doesn’t care for the taste of whole-wheat breads? No problem. Whole-grain white-flour wraps and breads offer lots of fiber but have the taste and look of traditional white-flour choices.
Butters: If nuts aren’t off limits at your child’s school, try something different than the typical peanut butter and jelly: Almond or hazelnut butter topped with fresh fruit such as bananas or mango slices, or fruit spreads such as marmalade or apple butter. Nut butters are great sources of protein with healthy fats and don’t require refrigeration—a plus if cold storage isn’t available.
Cut-ups: Cut up fresh fruits and vegetables the night before and add some to your child’s lunchbox. Cantaloupe pieces, pineapple chunks, and kiwi slices are popular with kids and full of vitamins and other nutrients. Toss in some cauliflower or broccoli florets with a side of pre-packaged dip or salsa. If you’re short on time, pre-cut fruits and veggies are available from your local grocer, but they may be more expensive.
Dessert: Oatmeal cookies, dried fruit, or low-fat yogurt (if kept at 40ºF or less) are terrific, healthy choices.
Let your child dictate just how adventurous his or her lunchtime options should be—they might surprise you! For more great lunchtime ideas, the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge Cookbook features 54 kid-friendly recipes. And remember: Safety first! Keep lunchboxes clean and cool (store in the refrigerator overnight) and provide a moist, cleansing towelette in your child’s lunchbox so he or she can wash up before eating.
Fall sports are under way for many adolescent athletes, making it important for teens to know what and when to eat and drink to be at their best. HPRC has created a resource—“Fueling the Adolescent Athlete”—to help your adolescent athlete fuel his or her body for optimal performance. This table provides general guidelines for what teens need to drink and eat before, during, and after practice or workouts.
Staying hydrated goes hand in hand with peak performance. But knowing whether you are hydrated can be difficult. Check out this urine color card from the U.S. Army Public Health Command to get an idea of what to watch out for. And see if your child’s school has the chart posted in the locker rooms and nurse’s office.
For more adolescent and family nutrition information, check out HPRC’s Nutrition section.
Omega-3 fatty acids make up a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are important to our health, and since our bodies can’t make them, we need to obtain them from the foods we eat. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of heart disease and play an important role in our cell membranes. So, eating more can benefit the body in many ways.
The most widely available dietary source of EPA and DHA is cold-water oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Other oily fish such as tuna also contains omega-3 fatty acids but in lesser amounts. Some other sources of ALA are walnuts and canola, soybean, flaxseed/linseed, and olive oils. For additional information, including health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, read this fact sheet; and for omega-3 content in various foods, try this infosheet from HPRC.
Iodine is an essential nutrient. It plays a key role in how well your thyroid functions and is particularly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding for the development of your baby’s brain. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for iodine for most adults is 150 micrograms (mcg). But women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need slightly more: 220 mcg and 290 mcg daily, respectively.
Iodine is present in some foods such as fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and grains. Iodine is also added to table salt—referred to as “iodized salt.” Although most Americans eat too much salt, much of it comes from processed foods and typically isn’t iodized. Consequently, many women who are pregnant are iodine-deficient. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend taking a prenatal vitamin to ensure you’re getting enough of all your vitamins and minerals, including iodine. In addition, if you’re vegan or you don’t eat dairy products or fish, talk to your doctor about your iodine status.
Read all prenatal dietary supplement labels carefully—whether they’re prescription or over-the-counter—so you can be certain your prenatal vitamin contains sufficient iodine to meet your needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Also, be sure to look for one that is third-party certified. For more information about iodine, read this fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.
Olive oil is known for its flavor, versatility, and health-promoting qualities. Nutrition experts think olive oil may be partly responsible for the many health benefits associated with the “Mediterranean diet,” an eating pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and “healthy” fats. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat—one of the healthy fats. It contains vitamins A, E, and K, plus many other beneficial compounds that might reduce your risk of heart disease.
Heating olive oil or holding it at high temperatures for long periods of time can reduce its beneficial qualities. If you use olive oil for deep-frying, it should be discarded after one or two uses.
Interestingly, olives can “pick up” airborne toxins present in smoke from fires, car exhaust, and other pollutants. So it might be a good idea to choose olive oils produced from olives grown in areas where air quality is good most of the growing season. This is likely true for all edible oils.
Olive oil can be used in countless ways: Drizzle on pasta or bread, brush lightly on meats or fish, coat vegetables for roasting, or use nearly any way that butter or other fats can be used—even baking! Of course, as with all fats, be sure to use olive oil in moderation to avoid gaining weight.
Wheat products such as bread and pasta are mainstays of our diets. However, some people are sensitive to gluten, a blend of two proteins found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barley. Three distinct conditions caused by gluten sensitivities have been identified: wheat allergy, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Wheat allergy is more common in children than adults, and many children outgrow the condition. Symptoms include hives, itchy throat or eyes, and difficulty breathing. Wheat allergy can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention—an especially serious consideration for Warfighters in the field.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, his/her immune system attacks the small intestine, impairing the way the body digests food. Symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, lactose intolerance, and anemia. If not treated, celiac disease can cause neurological disorders, osteoporosis, and other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes. About three million people in the U.S. have celiac disease.
In non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, a person is sensitive to gluten but—as the name suggests—does not have celiac disease. Symptoms include diarrhea or abdominal pain and vague, non-intestinal symptoms such as bone or joint pain, leg numbness, or skin rashes, making diagnosis difficult. About 18 million people in the U.S. have NCGS.
The only way to treat gluten sensitivities is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. Things to avoid include:
- Wheat, rye, and barley
- Flours made from wheat: self-rising flour, graham flour, cake flour, pastry flour
- Oats, unless certified gluten-free
- Communion wafers and matzo
- Soy sauce
Even if a product label says it is “wheat free” it might contain rye or barley. FDA has established guidelines for labeling gluten-free foods.
Gluten-free foods can become “contaminated” with gluten in home kitchens, so be sure to use clean tools for preparing and serving gluten-free foods, and designate appliances, such as a toaster, for use with gluten-free products only.
Many people with gluten sensitivities are deficient in calcium, folate, iron, and certain B vitamins. They should have their vitamin and mineral status monitored by a doctor.
Although following a gluten-free diet can be challenging at first, with a little practice it can become second nature. There are many gluten-free products on the market and many bakeries now offer gluten free selections. People who follow the diet typically experience significant improvements in their health and quality of life that make the effort worth the challenges. You can learn more about celiac disease and gluten-free diets from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.