September's Wellness Topic: Women's Health
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Amy Lee, NP
Women's Health

Women and Nutrition
by Amy Lee

As women, we need to eat healthy to protect ourselves from illness and disability. One thing we've learned, however, is that you can't "just go on a diet" — you have to have a diet that you can live on, and live with. In other words, you have to find a way to eat healthy and smart all the time. Good nutrition is vital to being healthy.

Learn your BMI

Your body mass index (BMI) is a measurement of your body fat relative to your height and weight. A healthy BMI lies between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI under 18 is deemed underweight, while a BMI between 25 and 30 is considered overweight. A BMI of over 30 is obese. There are free BMI calculators on the internet that are very easy to use. You merely type in your height and weight, click a button, and your BMI appears on the screen. From there it's easy to see where you stand.

The trouble with being too thin

In spite of the old adage, you can in fact be too skinny. The bodies of underweight women produce less estrogen than average, and this sometimes causes their ovaries to stop functioning altogether. Without ovarian function, becoming pregnant is impossible. And, if the ovaries are working well enough for pregnancy to occur, the baby will take what it needs from your body. Thus, if you are underweight to start with, your low weight can put both you and your pregnancy in danger as the baby tries to pull the nutrients it needs from your body. Long-term, underweight women are also at serious risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture.

Obesity also has concerns specific to women

Obesity has become one of the greatest health crises in the U.S. All overweight people, men and women alike, are at a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes, but women have some specific concerns — such as the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death among U.S. women.

Being overweight poses further dangers. For example, it leads to increased insulin resistance and eventually to diabetes. In the presence of insulin resistance, the ovaries will stop ovulating and develop something called polycystic ovarian syndrome, in which the fat cells actually continue to produce estrogen. Without ovulation, however, no progesterone is being produced to keep the estrogen from harming the woman. These high estrogen levels lead to overgrowth of the uterine lining and to irregular, heavy vaginal bleeding. Over time, the risk for endometrial cancer also grows. If the woman does manage to become pregnant, the insulin resistance can result in diabetes, which can complicate her labor and make for a difficult Cesarean section and recovery. Even after menopause, the fat cells continue to produce estrogen, increasing the risk of both ovarian and breast cancer. Last, any surgery for and recovery from these conditions is complicated by the woman's increased BMI.

A healthy diet means not dieting

Maintaining your BMI between 18.5 and 25 is the healthiest option. Crash dieting doesn't work because you will eventually return to your previous patterns — and those habits aren't livable in the long term. Similarly, always being on a drastic diet doesn't keep you healthy either.

You must have a way of eating every day that shows respect for your body and your health. Add to this healthful diet at least 30 minutes of exercise 4 to 5 days per week, and you will achieve that healthy BMI.

So go calculate your BMI and see where you stand. If you're in the healthy range, then keep up the good work — it's a lifetime endeavor!

If you need to gain, find a healthy way to add some calories and weight. If you need to lose, find a way that will allow you to live healthier for the rest of your life! Visit the Nutrition.gov website for detailed information about maintaining a healthy diet for you and your family.

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