Food for Women: Health or Hype?
Fortified food products geared toward women: are they the answer to a woman's hectic lifestyle, or just a marketing gimmick?

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Picture of woman eating cereal Food for Women: Health or Hype?

Food companies have long served health-conscious consumers with fortified products. Some promise to improve memory, lower cholesterol, stave off osteoporosis, and much more. Now, the makers of breakfast foods are offering products geared toward a woman's unique nutritional needs.

Breakfast cereals and bars are easy and economical. They fit into a woman's busy lifestyle, making it easier to eat a nutritious breakfast or snack. But to what extent can they supplement a healthy diet and lifestyle?

Women and nutrition
Less than half of all women get enough recommended nutrients, including calcium, folic acid, iron, and vitamins A, B-6, and E.

Food products marketed toward women try to address some of these concerns, but it helps to be knowledgeable about what you're consuming. Here are some things to keep in mind when evaluating a product:

Calcium. A number of cereals provide a good portion of a day's calcium requirement. But keep in mind that you can absorb only about 500 mg of calcium at one time. Some cereals have that amount or more, and that does not include any milk you add. Be aware that you need to spread your calcium intake throughout the day for best absorption. You will also need plenty of vitamin D and magnesium, which may not be in the product, to help absorb the calcium.

Soy. Recent research shows that soy may not have an impact on lowering cholesterol. Food makers can claim a product with at least 6 grams of soy per serving helps to prevent heart disease. Most breakfast products contain 2 grams or less, though.

Cereal and weight loss. Quite a few brands of cereal make weight-loss claims. Though these are low in fat, most other breakfast cereals are also low in fat. Some have extra fiber and protein, but you have to check the label. For more waistline-friendly cereals, look for high-fiber whole-grain cereals with no more than 5 grams of sugar per serving.

Antioxidants. There is little evidence that people who get more A, C, or E have fewer colds, a lower risk of illness, or any other advantage over people who get less.

Folic acid and B vitamins. These may protect your arteries by lowering homocysteine and helping to prevent spina bifida should you become pregnant. There is no real proof that the B's will ward off fatigue, another popular health claim. The best source for these nutrients is a multivitamin because it's usually more complete.

The bottom line
Remember that you can get most of the vitamins and minerals found in women's foods from an ordinary multivitamin. The only difference: a multivitamin is more complete.

Also, don't assume something is healthy just because it's fortified. Women's foods are typically fortified with extra vitamins, minerals, soy protein, or other ingredients. But it's important to take stock of what's being fortified. If the food is not nutritious to start with, don't expect a handful of vitamins to make it healthy.

Bottom line? Though they may provide some of the vitamins and minerals a woman needs to stay healthy, fortified foods should not take the place of a wholesome diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes. These are the foods that have a proven track record in maintaining health and fighting disease.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist
Created on 07/15/2008
Updated on 05/19/2011
Sources:
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What should you know?
  • American Institute for Cancer Research. Breakfast cereals: a little healthier, but gr-r-reat?
  • National Women's Health Information Center. Staying active and eating healthy.
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