Wild salmon, yogurt, berries, nuts, leafy greens – what do these food options have in common? Each has been recognized as an important part of a healthy diet by numerous sources. But why are these and others that are often classified as “superfoods” so crucial to the goal of a healthier lifestyle?
Judy Donnelly, a registered dietician nutritionist and licensed dietitian with Nutrition Works in Portland, believes consuming a wide array of foods in this category is necessary to reach that goal.
“There are particular foods that everyone should be sure they are getting enough of, with an emphasis on plant-based foods for everyone,” said Donnelly, who has been in practice for more than 25 years. “With superfoods, variety is key. Eggs are a good source of protein. Yogurt, without much added sugar, provides calcium, protein and the cultures beneficial to digestion. And deep greens – kale, mustard greens, collards, Swiss chard – are easy to grow and great for you. Protective nutrients come predominately from plants, especially those fruits and veggies that are deep colored. The pigments that make the food deep colored are the phytonutrients that are important.”
On her list of superfoods, Donnelly also includes ground flax, sweet potatoes, beans and legumes because they are “cheap and versatile;” anything in the berry family, which have anti-inflammatory properties; almonds and most any nuts or seeds for Omega 3s. Sardines also offer a good source of Omega 3 and, according to Donnelly, are a sustainable species of fish.
It is also important to have lean protein, from plant or animal sources, Donnelly said, enough to maintain lean body mass.
Eating a diet full of the nutrients that provide energy and help to build or repair tissue can also help women maintain a healthy weight at any age, according to “A Lifetime of Good Health: Your Guide to Staying Healthy,” from the U.S. Office of Women’s Health, found at womenshealth.gov.
To control weight and help prevent heart disease, stroke, and other health concerns, the guide suggests eating mainly fruits and vegetables and grains – at least half of which should be whole grains; fat-free or low-fat versions of milk, cheese, and yogurt; along with fish, skinless poultry, lean red meats, beans, eggs and nuts.
Chelsea Fyrberg, who holds a master’s degree in holistic nutrition, says that certain foods become more important depending on what stage of life a woman is in.
Fyrberg works with Women’s Wellness Comprehensive Care in Portland as a nutritionist, and in private practice at Nutrition Simplified in Windham. Her goal is to educate her clients on a non-diet approach to healthy eating.
“The 20s and 30s mesh together for women, often their childbearing years. There are several nutrients that women need more of, especially if they plan on becoming or become pregnant,” said Fyrberg.
Fyrberg cited folic acid, iron and Omega 3 fatty acids as the three most important for young women.
“Folic acid helps with fetus development, minimizing birth defects such as cleft palate. It can be found in beans, spinach, avocado and asparagus,” said Fyrberg. “Women in their 20s and 30s often feel energetically drained, sometimes because they are not nourishing themselves as they should, which includes getting 18 milligrams a day of iron. Good sources of iron include soybeans, lentils and pumpkin seeds.”
For better absorption of iron, Fyrberg recommends adding vitamin C to the intake. Lack of B vitamins can also play a role in anemia, but Fyrberg urges women to talk to their health-care practitioner about vitamin B supplements before adding them to a diet.
“The third nutrient is Omega 3 fatty acids, which boost serotonin and can help with depression,” Fyrberg said. “Omega 3s can be found in superfoods like chia seeds, ground flax, wild salmon and walnuts.”
Calcium is the No. 1 thing women need to make sure they are getting enough of when they reach their 40s, according to Fyrberg.
“Calcium helps women gear up for menopause by implementing bone-building minerals,” she said. “Good sources include kale, organic yogurt – I recommend organic dairy products – and raw almonds.”
When women hit their 40s, their metabolism starts to slow down. Fyrberg said she often hears women say, “I used to be able to lose weight.”
“It’s not so much about the calories going in though, it’s more about the nutrients going in,” she said.
Because anti-oxidants are important at any age, but even more so as women age, Fyrberg recommends at least five portions a day of any brightly colored vegetables or fruit such as blueberries, cherries or goji berries.
The anti-oxidant quality of deep-colored foods “helps to slow down the aging process and ward off and prevent diseases such as cancer,” said Fyrberg. “Re-implement these critical nutrients in your diet to keep feeling your best.”
Making sure to get enough vitamin C is another important step for women as they age.
“Vitamin C helps to keep immunity strong or restore a depleted immune system,” said Fyrberg. “Red bell peppers, Brussels sprouts and citrus, including lemons and limes, are all good sources.
At age 50-plus, Fyrberg counsels women to “hone in on vitamins, especially vitamin D2 and 3, which are what superfoods are all about anyway. D levels start to plummet in your 50s. Consider plant-based D2 from mushrooms, like portabella and shitake. Eggs, oil-rich fish like tuna are good sources, along with getting into the sun.”
Fiber and protein are also important for women 50 and over.
“Fiber helps to keep the digestive system cleaned out and working properly. Whole grains, oats, beans, fruits, veggies, lentils are all good sources,” said Fyrberg. “And protein to keep muscles strong to support structure and metabolism, which can be found in lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy, quinoa and edamame.”
Donnelly has a wide range of clients, including recreational and competitive athletes, helping each to develop good nutrition habits. Along with one-on-one consulting at Nutrition Works, Donnelly works with students at the health center at Bates College, and teaches cooking classes that promote healthy eating with an anti-cancer diet at the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing in Lewiston.
“There is not a tremendous amount that changes over the life cycle about how food choices are balanced. What changes is what people need for calories. It’s important to adjust the amount of food to match what is needed for fuel,” said Donnelly.
But when it comes to menopause, women experiencing symptoms such as hot flashes, concentration and fuzzy-thinking issues should try to include some phytoestrogen in their diets, according to Donnelly.
“Phytoestrogens mimic what estrogen produced in the body does. Although soy-based foods have been in controversy, with mixed information about benefits, I encourage intake of minimally processed soy isoflavones like tofu and edamame,” she said. “And lignans, the precursor to isoflavones, are important, too. You get them in flax seeds and flax seed oil, seeds, nuts and legumes.”
Fyrberg advises women going through menopause to also take time for breakfast and to make sure they are getting adequate hydration, which helps with stabilization of hormones.
For post-menopausal women, Donnelly suggests maintaining vitamin D levels, lean protein intake, and plenty of calcium, getting as much as possible from the foods being eaten, which can be challenging, according to Fyrberg.
“Women don’t always get the nutrients they need from food, especially in Maine during the winter, when so much of what we consume is transported from a distance,” said Fyrberg.
Donnelly hopes that the growing trend toward more locally sourced foods will help everyone to eat healthier and consume more nutrient-rich foods.
“Eating foods that are less processed, buying local, organic – we seem to be moving in that direction, which is good,” said Donnelly, who also urges women not to be too hard on themselves when it comes to diet.
“It’s really all about living happy and eating healthy,” she said, “not about being a perfect eater.”
Judy Donnelly has been a nutritionist in the Greater Portland area for more than 25 years.Courtesy photoSuperfoods include brightly colored vegetables, such as the red peppers pictured here at a farmers market in Maine, which offer the phytonutrients that are key in a healthy diet.Photo courtesy of Kennebunk Farmers’ Market