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What's the recommended calorie intake for women?
When it comes to what you put into your body for fuel and nutrition, your biological sex is an important factor. You may be aware that women generally have different body compositions to men, and that the suggested calorie intake for women is lower. However, did you know that women can also have different nutritional needs depending on their life stage?
Calorie intake for women
We have all heard of calories - the measurement of energy in our food that fuels our bodies and affects our weight. Yet, how many of us know the healthy amount to consume based on our sex? According to Public Health England, the answer is only 39% of women and 24% of men.
A 2018 report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that a third of people in the UK underestimate how many calories they consume. On average:
- Women reported eating 1,570 calories but actually consumed nearly 2,500 calories per day.
- Men claimed they ate 2,065 calories while consuming over 3,000 calories per day.
There appears to be a knowledge gap when it comes to our calorie consumption. Being aware of and adhering to the recommended calorie intake for women and men can help us to maintain a healthy balance between the energy we put into our bodies (via food) and the energy we put out (via normal bodily functions and exercise).
While calories are just one aspect of healthy eating, maintaining a healthy energy input/output is important for preventing obesity, and all its associated health risks including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.
"The estimated calorie intake for women is around 2,000 calories per day, though this can vary greatly depending on your current weight and age as well as general lifestyle, activity, and exercise levels," says Reema Patel, a registered dietitian at Dietitian Fit.
Recommended calorie intake for women is less than for men (2,800 calories) because, generally speaking:
- Men tend to have an overall larger body in terms of both height and weight.
- Men tend to have a greater muscle:fat tissue ratio (after puberty men have around 15 times more testosterone, which contributes to muscle mass).
- Muscle tissue is more metabolically active than fat tissue. This means that a man's basal metabolism - the number of calories (energy) they burn while at rest - is typically higher, as is the number of calories they burn during exercise.
Nutritional requirements for women
While it's important to be aware of the correct calorie intake for women, to be healthy we also need to make sure we're getting the right nutrients through food. In many cases, women need different dietary levels of minerals and vitamins than men.
Patel explains some of the key nutrients that are important for women's health:
- Pre-menopausal women require more iron because they can lose it through their menstrual blood and during pregnancy when the iron in their blood is supplied to their babies.
- Requirements are 14.8 milligrams per day (mg/d) compared to 8.7 mg/d for men and postmenopausal women.
Good sources of iron include red meat, chicken, fish and liver (avoid liver if pregnant). Plant-based sources include pulses, beans, fortified cereals, nuts, and leafy green vegetables. Combine these plant-based iron foods with a source of vitamin C to help support the absorption of iron.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women need more calcium to help their babies develop and to prevent their bodies from using up the calcium in their bones.
- Postmenopausal women need more calcium to maintain bone health and to prevent conditions like osteoporosis, as the decrease in oestrogen production after menopause makes women's bodies less able to retain calcium.
- Requirements for women increase from 700 mg/d to 1250 mg/d when breastfeeding, and to 1200 mg/d post-menopause.
Good sources of calcium include dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese; calcium-fortified plant-based alternatives, such as tofu (set with calcium); sardines, whitebait and tinned salmon; and some leafy greens.
Folic acid (folate)
- This B vitamin is very important for women who are trying to become pregnant and during pregnancy as it can help to protect developing babies from major birth defects of the spine and brain.
- Requirements increase from 200 micrograms per day (μg/d) to 400 μg/d.
A folic acid supplement of 400 μg/d is key, as it can be difficult to get enough from diet alone.
- A mineral that is important for the function of women's thyroid hormones, which during pregnancy and breastfeeding can affect the baby's physical growth and cognitive development.
- Requirements increase from 150 μg/d to 200 μg/d.
Good sources of iodine include dairy products and iodine-fortified plant-based alternatives found in some drinks, fish, shellfish, and seaweed. Be mindful not to consume seaweed products - including nori, wakame, and kelp - more than once a week as these can contain extremely high concentrations of iodine.
Omega-3 fatty acids
- Supplementation during pregnancy supports the cognitive development of babies, and may also play a role in the prevention of premenstrual tension and postmenopausal hot flushes.
- There is no specific recommendation, but research shows that a supplement containing 200-500 mg of DHA (a type of omega 3) is important.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel; plant-based foods like leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds; specially fortified foods including some frozen fish and eggs.
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Healthy meal tips
The highly nutritious foods recommended above by Patel also tend to be lower in calories than unhealthy foods with a low nutritional value - for example, processed foods such as cakes and sweets that are high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar.
This means that following a healthy, balanced diet can make it easier to maintain the recommended calorie intake for women, provided that you watch your portion sizes. "An overall nourishing and healthy diet will contain a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats," advises Patel.
"At each meal, ask yourself what your vegetables or salad will be, what protein you are choosing, and what carbohydrates will go with the meal. Then add a small portion of healthy fats such as nuts and seeds, cheese, avocado, olives or olive oil."
For example, a healthy breakfast for women could consist of:
- Protein: salmon (contains omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, and calcium if canned).
- Healthy fat: avocado (contains omega-3 fatty acids and iron).
- Wholegrain carbohydrate: toasted whole wheat brown bread (contains iron and folic acid).
- Fruit or vegetable: tomatoes (contain folic acid).
Healthy weight for women
Remember, although the recommended calorie intake for women is there as a helpful guide, every woman is different. Your natal sex, genetic body composition, age, height, and mental state all affect your ideal healthy weight.
It's also important to be cautious of calorie counting, as becoming too obsessed with the calories in your food over their nutritional value can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders. You should be mindful not to consume too few calories and nutrients.
Healthy BMI for women
The body mass index (BMI) calculator is a common tool used for working out if a person is at a healthy weight. It is a simple measurement of a person's weight in relation to their height.
However, this method doesn't account for a number of significant factors. These include:
- The proportion of body fat mass compared to muscle mass - people who are healthy but have a very high percentage of muscle mass, such as professional athletes, tend to be classed as "overweight" as BMI doesn't distinguish between muscle and fat.
- Gender differences - women typically have more body fat than men.
- Ethnicity differences - people of different ethnicities naturally have different healthy levels of body fat.
- Age differences - the elderly tend to have more fat mass.
- Location and distribution of body fat - people with more fat around the waist and surrounding the abdominal organs may be more at risk of health problems than those with fat in other areas.
RFM (relative fat mass)
To make weight measuring more accurate, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) suggests assessing these key factors together:
- Waist circumference.
- Risk factors for the conditions linked with obesity.
Relative fat mass (RFM) can be used to measure the amount of fat around your waist in comparison to your height. One study concluded that RFM may be a more accurate measure of healthy weight for women than BMI.
Results also closely matched those taken by a high-tech DXA body scan. This is significant, as it suggests that you could accurately check your waist circumference body fat at home - all you need is a tape measure and an online RFM calculator.