Staying fit and managing your weight start to be preoccupations in your 20s, along with getting your body ready for pregnancy and childbirth. Meanwhile, preventing osteoporosis, hypertension, and heart disease are probably not at the top of your priority list. But did you know that what you eat now can help lower your risk of getting those health problems later? Registered dietitians Lisa Goldberg, RD, MS, CDN, and Lynn Grieger RD, CDE, suggest their top picks for maintaining your overall health in your 20s, plus the best pre-pregnancy foods you can eat to prepare your body for baby.
Did you know that your body's bone mass peaks by age 25? Including calcium-rich foods such as milk in your diet is essential for your body's bone density. While most women need 1,000 to 1,200mg of calcium per day, we often fall short of that requirement, which increases our risk for getting osteoporosis. "Women don't really worry about osteoporosis until they're in their 50s or 60s, but it's actually in their 20s when they can really do something to prevent it," says Grieger. Skim milk is a great source for your daily requirement of calcium because it is low in fat and contains vitamin D, which significantly increases your body's ability to absorb this essential mineral.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 cup, 300mg calcium, 90 calories
Goldberg chooses yogurt, another rich source of calcium, because it helps to increase your body's bone density and to maintain strong teeth. "When you are in your 20's, you don't think about when you are going to lose your teeth, but loading up on calcium now can help prevent dental problems later," says Goldberg. "Studies also show that calcium may lower your risk of heart disease and hypertension. Plus, there is evidence that links calcium to weight loss," she adds. Goldberg also likes yogurt because it contains acidophilus, which promotes a healthy gastro-intestinal system and helps keep yeast infections in check.
Recommended Serving Size: 8 ounces, 120 calories
Meat has made a comeback in recent years, thanks to Atkins and other low-carb diets. In addition to being high in protein, it is loaded with iron. "Iron-deficient anemia is very prevalent among women in their 20s," says Grieger, "It can cause weakness, fatigue, inability to pay attention, reduced resistance to cold temperatures, and inability to regulate body temperature adequately. Plus, the need for iron goes up considerably during pregnancy." Eating meat is one of the easiest ways to get enough iron into your system. Stick to the leanest cuts of meat (hint: choose anything with the word loin in it, such as "sirloin") to ensure that you get plenty of iron and protein, without excessive amounts of fat. A thinly sliced steak on a bed of greens with balsamic dressing makes a delicious low-carb, iron- and protein-rich lunch or dinner option.
Recommended Serving Size: 3 ounces, cooked, 200 calories
An excellent source of vegetable protein, fiber, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron, beans are beneficial for any age group. But their high concentration of folic acid, especially in lentils, makes them particularly good for women who plan to become pregnant or who are currently expecting. Studies show that including folic acid in a woman's diet, even before she conceives, significantly reduces the risk of neural tube defects in the developing fetus. Goldberg suggests using dried beans instead of the canned varieties, which often contain high amounts of sodium and fat.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 cup cooked, approximately 225 calories
If you're craving something sweet, pass on the cookies and grab a handful of strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, or raspberries instead. These nutrient-rich fruits are loaded with fiber and vitamin C. "I recommend berries to my clients because they are a low-glycemic index food, which means that they will satisfy a sugar-craving without the surge of insulin," says Goldberg. An added bonus to these superfoods: Studies show that certain varieties, especially cranberries, can help prevent urinary tract infections. Layer plain yogurt, berries, and low-fat granola for a healthy Superfoods Sundae!
Recommended Serving Size: 1/2 cup, 60 calories
Originally published on BHG.com, March 2005.