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Dealing with mood swings, cramps, energy drains, and headaches—not to mention having a job, managing a household, maintaining relationships, and looking impeccably gorgeous while doing it—is all in a day’s work for many women.
It might seem like too much to handle at times, but there’s a simple way to alleviate some of these stresses: your diet. While you may not have a choice as to when those debilitating cramps come on, you do have control over what you eat. Everything you put into your body can be a tool in your health-maintaining arsenal, and picking the very best weapons is paramount.
The following healthy foods claim big bragging rights by protecting the future you from a variety of women’s health concerns: They can fend off diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and breast cancer; strengthen your bones; fortify your immune system; protect and smooth your skin; and nurture your developing baby.
Most of these healthy foods might already be in your pantry—but if not, now’s the time to load up your shopping cart and supercharge your health. Since there are a lot of nutritious candidates on supermarket shelves, we’ve dug through the science to find out which ones give women that extra edge.
Read on to learn about how these 50 delicious foods can be powerful allies for your health and weight loss efforts for years to come. And then double down on your efforts by avoiding these weight loss mistakes women make, too!
Foods For Your Heart
Get this: heart disease is the leading killer of both women and men in America. According to the CDC, one in every four female deaths is a result of heart disease. Paired with a sensible diet and consistent routine exercise, the foods below can help ward off some of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease—high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
Fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel, and herring owe their super health-promoting powers to their high omega-3 content. These powerful anti-inflammatory fatty acids can help decrease your odds of dying from heart disease by more than 33 percent, help lower your risk of arthritis, and possibly make your baby smarter. To see which omega-3 fish you should be reeling in, check out our exclusive report of fish ranked for nutritional benefits.
Attention, chocoholics! Dozens of studies show that people who consume cocoa—as a hot drink or as dark chocolate—are in much better cardiovascular shape than those who don’t. One nine-year study in the journal Circulation Heart Failure found women who ate one to two servings of high-quality chocolate per week had a 32 percent lower risk of developing heart failure than those who said no to the cocoa.
Researchers attribute cocoa’s health benefits to its high concentrations of polyphenols and flavanols, anti-inflammatory compounds that help protect the heart. When you’re buying it, just make sure to pick up dark chocolate that contains 74 percent or more cocoa solids, as these are the flavanol-rich compounds.
One in four American women die of heart disease every year and 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease. Protecting your most vital organ is as simple as adding some walnuts to your diet. This heart-shaped nut is teeming with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that can help keep you safe. One recent study found that munching on two ounces a day could significantly improve blood flow to and from the heart in just 8 weeks.
Another study found that the same amount can help delay development of breast cancer and slow tumor growth in mice. Speculation is that antioxidants called phytosterols, already known cancer fighters, could be the culprit.
Nearly a third of women between 45 and 55 have high blood pressure, an illness that can lead to more serious issues like heart disease or stroke, and that number increases from 50 to 70 percent for women aged 55 to those 65 and older. It turns out, the vampire-repelling plant is both a flavor essential and a heart-disease-fighting superstar. Garlic contains phytochemicals, including allicin, which a review in the Journal of Integrated Blood Pressure Control showed may decrease high blood pressure by as much as 10 points—similar to standard blood pressure medication.
Garlic can also prevent the progression of heart disease by reducing the accumulation of plaque and preventing the formation of new plaque in the arteries, according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition. The catch is that cooking destroys this beneficial compound, so you’ll have to use garlic powder, aged garlic extract, or sprouted garlic.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the Mediterranean diet, which includes healthy fats like olive oil, prevents about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease in people at high cardiovascular risk. Olive oil, in particular, is loaded with monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), which lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol, which helps in lowering your risk of heart disease.
One of the best foods women should be eating is one you probably already are: the apple. Metabolic syndrome—a syndrome that refers to a cluster of conditions like insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol—is the main contributor to heart disease, the leading killer of American women.
While women who eat a diet rich in blood-sugar-spiking refined carbs or those who are overweight are most susceptible to metabolic syndrome, even healthy postmenopausal women are also at risk. The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which has been tracking 34,000 women for nearly 20 years, found that apples are one of three foods most effective at reducing the risk of death from coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease among women, as these women had less abdominal fat and lower blood pressure than their peers who didn’t consume apples.
High cholesterol can lead to the buildup of plaque in artery walls. Left untreated, this buildup can lead to heart attack and stroke, resulting in 2 of the top 5 leading causes of death in American women. Luckily, it’s not too difficult to combat. Simply eating a healthy diet that includes soluble fiber-rich whole grains, like oatmeal, can help. Oatmeal can also protect you from heart disease.
A Harvard study of more than 68,000 women found that those who ate the most fiber daily were 23 percent less likely to develop heart disease than were those who consumed the least. Thanks to the breakfast staple’s high fiber content, it can also slash the odds of developing type 2 diabetes by a whopping 61 percent! The superstar nutrient also helps stabilize blood sugar, which wards off diet-derailing hunger and dangerous dips in glucose.
Unlike animal sources of protein, beans are free of unhealthy fats. That might be the very reason one study found that people who consumed legumes at least four times a week had a 22 percent lower risk of heart disease compared with those who consumed them less than once a week. Equally as encouraging results were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. A scientific review of 26 clinical trials discovered that eating a 3/4 of a cup of beans daily could reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol in the blood by 5 percent.
Foods That Boost Your Brainpower
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease—a neurodegenerative disorder that is the most common type of dementia—is currently the fifth leading cause of death in females, and disproportionately affects women more than men. In fact, almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women, but many experts attribute the disparity to the fact that women often live longer than men, and old age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
Experts suspect other risk factors to be related to the decrease in consumption of antioxidant-rich foods, which typically scavenge cell-damaging free radicals which may lead to cognitive decline. Fit these foods into your diet to boost your brainpower and nourish your noggin for a longer, more productive life, and then check out which you should avoid.
Shrimp is the most potent source of an essential and hard-to-get nutrient called choline. This neurotransmitter building block is necessary for the structure and function of all cells, and a deficiency in this compound has been linked to neurological disorders and decreased cognitive function. Not only does it act as brain food, but it can also help lower your risk of breast cancer.
There’s a genetic basis to Alzheimer’s, and if the disease runs in your family, it’s especially important to make changes to your lifestyle to minimize your risk. One of those changes is adding cinnamon to your diet. The same constituents of cinnamon that moderate spikes in blood sugar levels—proanthocyanidins and cinnamaldehyde—exhibit other properties that can inhibit the formation of Alzheimer’s-causing protein aggregates, according to a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Blueberries are one of the most potent, age-defying, antioxidant-rich superfoods. Their wide array of health benefits is mostly attributed to their powerful anthocyanins, antioxidants, which cleanse your body of cell-damaging free radicals.
In one study of 16,010 women, those who ate one weekly serving of blueberries experienced less mental decline during the course of the study than participants who didn’t consume any of the little blue fruits. These same antioxidants that help maintain your mental sharpness also help keep your skin smooth and wrinkle-free—something every woman would be keen on. But that’s not all; these fruits help fight heart disease along with other berry benefits.
Swapping peanut butter for almond butter might better your chances of beating age-related memory loss. Almonds contain high concentrations of vitamin E (three times more than peanut butter), which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. And some studies indicate the nutrient can also slow the decline caused by Alzheimer’s disease. For a snack, spread a teaspoon over celery, or mix a spoonful into your morning oatmeal.
Foods To Protect You From Cancer
Next to heart disease, cancer is the second-highest killer of American women. Breast cancer, specifically, is the most common, followed by lung. While no single food can guarantee to keep you cancer-free, research has clearly shown that cancer prevention and diet go hand in hand. And the following foods are nutritional standouts when it comes to fighting cancer risk.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and the second leading cause of cancer-related mortality in women. Scientists have found that one way to reduce the mortality of cancer is through prevention, and that can be accomplished by eating turmeric.
This ginger-family spice contains curcumin, an antioxidant polyphenol with chemopreventive properties. Chronic inflammation is a major risk factor for the development and metastatic progression of cancer, and curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties have been found to diminish the formation of breast cancer, according to a study in Molecular Oncology.
A Harvard study found that eating more fiber-rich foods may lessen breast cancer risk partly by helping to reduce high estrogen levels in the blood, which are strongly linked with breast cancer development. And just a single slice of whole grain bread can provide up to 6 grams of fiber! Find out more about how fiber affects your health in our exclusive report, What Happens When You Don’t Eat Enough Fiber.
Thanks to their high concentration of the antioxidant lycopene, tomatoes can help protect our DNA from damage that can lead to breast, endometrial, lung, stomach, prostate, and renal cell carcinoma cancers, according to researchers. Since Ohio State researchers found that the heating process increases the amount of lycopene that is available for your body to absorb, make sure you add tomato paste, sautéed tomatoes, or an organic tomato sauce to omelets, chicken and pasta dishes to reap the benefits.
One of the most underrated cancer-fighters of the bunch, peanuts are a great source of cancer-fighting choline. The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that women who consumed the highest amount of choline had the lowest risk of breast cancer compared with those who consumed the least. And other studies have connected and choline deficiency with a higher risk of liver cancer as well as other ill health effects, such as fatty liver disease.
Another reason for fatty liver disease? Too much of one type of sugar: find out which in our report, Every Popular Added Sweetener—Ranked!
Green tea is packed with polyphenols, an antioxidant with enormous health benefits including anti-breast cancer properties. In a study of healthy Japanese American women at the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute, researchers found that those who drank at least one cup of green tea daily had less urinary estrogen—a known carcinogen of the breast—than the non-tea drinkers.
Pomegranates have been linked to fertility and health for centuries, but today, experts are fascinated with the seeded fruit’s ability to inhibit the growth of hormone-dependent breast cancer.
According to a study published in Cancer Prevention Research, ellagic acid in pomegranates might help protect against cancer by suppressing estrogen production and preventing the growth of breast cancer cells. While further studies are needed, researchers say people may consider eating more pomegranates to protect against cancer. Go get your pom on! Raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, walnuts, and pecans are also rich in ellagic acid, but they have varying amounts of fruit sugar.
Foods That Boost Your Immunity and Mood
With juggling time between work, kids, and yourself, it’s no wonder women are more prone than men to experience anxiety and depression, with nearly 12 million women being affected by a depressive disorder every year. When your stress levels are high, you also put your immune system at risk, and that’s besides the fact that about 75 percent of people who live with autoimmune diseases are women, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.
The following foods will tackle your stress hormones that wreak havoc on your immune system (and your waist), and help alleviate issues tied to autoimmune disorders.
When anxiety rides high, you’re at the mercy of stress hormones such as cortisol: the “belly fat hormone” that pulls lipids from your bloodstream and stores them in your fat cells. Turn to rooibos tea, one of the most popular teas in the 7-Day Flat-Belly Tea Cleanse. What makes rooibos tea particularly good for soothing your mind is the unique flavonoid called aspalathin.
Research shows this compound can reduce these stress hormones that can lead to depression as well as trigger hunger and fat storage. Drinking rooibos tea is actually one of the 10 Weight Loss Tips from Around the World; can you guess which country?
Not only are mushrooms super low-cal, they’re a good source of potassium, a nutrient that can help lower blood pressure and offset the negative effects of excess sodium. Another reason to add the veggie to your shopping list: Researchers at the University of Florida showed increased immunity in people who ate 4 ounces of cooked mushrooms every day for four weeks. Experts attribute the increase to mushrooms’ high levels of vitamin D, and portobello mushrooms boast the greatest concentration.
One particular autoimmune disease that affects women is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a condition that leads to 80 percent of all hypothyroidism cases. In this condition, your immune system attacks your thyroid gland—a gland that controls your metabolism—causing it to have decreased function, and causing you to feel sluggish and possibly gain weight. To help reduce anti-thyroid antibodies, consider adding brazil nuts into your diet.
These nuts are rich in selenium, a mineral that acts as the “on” switch to proper thyroid function. It also helps protect the gland from inflammatory byproducts of thyroid hormone production. Many people who have a sluggish thyroid or thyroid diseases exhibit deficiencies in selenium, and studies show that supplementation of 80 micrograms per day—about what you’ll find in just one Brazil nut—helps to reduce anti-thyroid antibodies.
Besides being a source of many phytochemicals, beets are a unique source of betalain pigments, which have been found to display potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and chemopreventive activity. One of these pigments, betaine, is a nutrient that not only fights inflammation, but also is known to rev your metabolism, positively influences the mechanism for insulin resistance, shut down genes that encourage fat to hang around, and to boost your mood.
That’s because betaine has been found to raise serotonin (the feel-good hormone) levels in the brain. These root veggies are also one of the 14 healing anti-inflammatory foods to help you fight weight gain!
Foods To Help You Look Fabulous
Looking our best is all in a day’s work for women. That’s because when we look good, we feel good, and studies have even shown we perform better at our jobs. But why should you shell out your hard-earned cash on serums and fancy lotions when you can keep your skin looking healthy, resilient, and radiant by just eating these foods?
Whether you need to treat acne, ward off premature aging, reduce the appearance wrinkles, get healthy hair, or fight back against another pesky skin condition, the right diet can be a valuable aid. Eat these foods to nourish your hair and skin to get that healthy glow you’re after.
Oranges get a lot of credit for vitamin C, but bell peppers are actually the best source. Vitamin C is known for its skin and immunity benefits. Researchers in the United Kingdom looked at vitamin C intake in 4,025 women and found that those who ate more had less wrinkling and dryness. As an added bonus, although getting enough vitamin C won’t prevent you from catching a cold or flu (you can blame your kids for that), studies show that it could help you recover faster.
If you have cellulite, you’re certainly not alone. This cosmetic condition will affect nearly 90 percent of women at some point during their lives, even women who are fit and trim. That’s because cellulite is simply fat pushing up against your skin, and its emergence means that your skin’s collagen is too weak to support smoother, un-dimpled skin.
One solution is by eating fresh herbs, like cilantro, which promotes detoxification by helping to remove heavy metals from the body that tend to hide in fat cells. These heavy metals can disrupt normal tissue function and, as a result, prevent your body from healing and functioning properly. By reducing overall toxins in your body, you can help get rid of excess stored fat, which can help lessen the appearance of cellulite. Check out these 29 Amazing Recipes That Reduce Cellulite.
Not only are women at greater risk than men for eye-related diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), they are also at higher risk for overall health conditions that impact their vision, like diabetes, which affects one in 10 American women over the age of 20. Kill two birds with one stone with sweet potatoes.
These tubers are rich in beta-carotene, a precursor for vitamin A—the essential nutrient that protects and maintains eye health—and a half-cup serving delivers 80% of your DV. Oh, and did we mention that a study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour found that foods rich in carotenoids (like sweet potatoes) can give you a healthier, more attractive, and more radiant glow than you would get from sun exposure? They can!
Not quite ready to join the salt-and-pepper club? Get more copper in your diet. A study in the journal Biological Trace Elemental Research found premature-graying individuals had significantly lower copper levels than a control group. Your body requires copper to produce pigment for your skin and hair, and shiitake mushrooms are one of the best dietary sources. Just a half cup provides 71 percent of your recommended daily intake of copper!
How many products and concealers have you purchased to cover those pesky, puffy, dark circles under your the eyes? They may be a sign of lack of sleep, but it can also indicate another more common issue: dehydration. Salty foods, alcohol, exercise, hot weather and just plain not drinking enough water can create inflammation, which results in those raccoon eyes.
Start replenishing your body with these detox waters: Cut up some citrus fruits (rind included), soak in a pitcher of ice water, and drink up. The vitamin C in the citrus will help balance levels of electrolytes and expel excess water weight while the d-limonene in the rinds acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory compound which helps the liver flush toxins from the body.
Natto is a Japanese dish made by boiling and fermenting soybeans with bacteria that increases the beans’ nutritional value. Natto is unique in that it’s the highest dietary source of vitamin K2—a vitamin which is important for cardiovascular and bone health as well as promoting skin elasticity to help prevent wrinkles.
On top of that, natto is a potent source of gut-healing probiotics. A healthy gut can keep inflammation at bay, which researchers say may affect the health of our skin since many troubles like acne, eczema, and psoriasis stem from inflammation.
Foods For Fertility
If you’re in the phase of looking to get that bun in the oven, there are a few foods you can add to your diet to get things moving and prepare your body for another buddy. Noshing on the right foods can support vaginal health, boost mood, and increase libido so you can focus on the more important things.
It might not only be your crazy-busy schedule that’s making you too tired for sex. One of the main causes of fatigue among women is iron deficiency, or anemia, which is typically caused by a loss of iron in the blood due to heavy menstruation or pregnancy.
The condition can zap energy and can result in feelings of exhaustion, weakness, and irritability. Grass-fed beef is the perfect solution: it provides your body with heme iron, the form of iron more readily absorbed by your body compared to nonheme iron found in spinach or iron-enriched foods.
Grass-fed beef also provides the added benefits of containing up to 5 times as many omega-3 fatty acids as corn-fed beef and contains twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)—a fatty acid that has been shown to exert anticarcinogenic, antiobese, antidiabetic, and antihypertensive properties. It also contains up to ten times the amount of immunity-boosting vitamin E, which also acts as a powerful antioxidant in the face of free radicals.
“If you’re feeling a little dry before sex, try snacking on flax seeds. Flax contains a rich source of phytoestrogens that help increase your estrogen levels and lubricates the vagina,” says nutritionist Cassie Bjork, RD, LD.
Probiotic-rich yogurt is great for everyone’s digestive health, but probiotics are particularly important for women’s urinary and vaginal health. Probiotics are good bacteria that live in your intestines and play an essential role in everything from mood and weight maintenance to balancing our immune system. If the balance of your good bacteria is off, when the bad guy bacteria make their way out of your body by passing through your colon, by virtue of proximity, they can re-colonize the vagina and urinary tract. To support the reestablishment of a healthy gut flora, eat yogurt or one of these Yogurt-Free Probiotic Foods.
Contrary to what you might think, the common nettle is more than a pesky, spiked weed. Stinging nettles are a rich plant-based source of iron and folic acid, and a 2013 study found its painkilling properties can benefit anemia as well as seasonal allergies and UTIs. It also contains vitamin K, which helps blood clot, so it’s great if you tend to get a little anemic because of heavy periods. Make a tea by adding one tablespoon dried nettle herb to water, and steep for at least 30 minutes.
Around 60 percent of women will experience this common issue (and the painfully frequent urination that goes with it) over their lifetimes. As it turns out, your mom’s home remedy might actually help!
According to a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, when women took a cranberry juice pill equivalent to two 8-ounce servings of cranberry juice for 6 weeks after gynecological surgery, it reduced the rate of UTI occurance by half. Two ingredients in cranberries—fructose and A-type proanthocyanidins (PAC)—may help prevent UTIs by either selecting against more adhesive strains in the stool or by directly preventing bacteria and E. coli in particular, from adhering to the bladder wall. It might prevent a UTI from occurring, but it will not, however, kill the bacteria once they’re established; in that case, only prescription antibiotics can provide relief.
Oysters are full of zinc, and women with higher levels of zinc in their system have been shown to have a higher sex drive than those with lower levels. It’s easy to get your shuck on at happy hour: Just a half dozen oysters on the half shell will provide you with 33 mg of zinc, over two times the 14 mg RDA for adult women.
Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you… can diminish PMS symptoms like 24/7 hunger, mood swings, and water retention? It’s true! And it’s all thanks to their high levels of magnesium. The mineral helps the body flush out water and can also boost serotonin levels—the hormone that keeps mood stable and appetite in check.
But that’s not all! Lentils are rich in fiber, a nutrient responsible for the legume’s cholesterol-lowering effects. In fact, researchers found a relationship between a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and a higher intake of legumes like lentils, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.