Hesperian Health Guides
Eat well for good health
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All women need good food to do their daily work, to prevent illness, and to have safe and healthy births. But not eating well (poor nutrition) is the most common and disabling health problem among women in poor countries. When food is not shared equally within a family or a community, it is usually women, especially disabled women, who do not get enough.
Starting in childhood, a girl is often given less food to eat than a boy. As a result, she may grow more slowly, her bones may not develop properly, and this can cause a disability later in life. For a girl who was born with a disability, it can make her disability worse. Also, when a woman who does not get enough to eat (is malnourished) becomes sick, she is more likely to have serious complications.
A healthy diet
You do not need to eat all foods to be healthy. You can eat the main food you are accustomed to, and if possible, add as many of the other foods as are available in your community. Foods with protein are especially good for keeping skin and muscles strong, and foods with calcium (milk and milk products, green leafy vegetables, soy beans, and shellfish) are especially good for keeping bones strong.
Here are some suggestions:
- a main low-cost food, such as rice, maize millet, wheat, cassava, potato and others.
- some foods with protein from an animal, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, fish or meats (which help build the body).
- other sources of protein, such as beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, seaweed, soy.
- fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals (which help protect and repair the body).
- and a small amount of fats and sugar (which give energy).
Prevent anemia (weak blood)
Without enough good food, any girl or woman can suffer from general poor health, and she may also suffer from anemia. This happens when you do not eat enough foods rich in iron. Anemia is very common among women, especially pregnant and breastfeeding women. It causes extreme tiredness, and lowers a woman’s resistance to infection and disease. Heavy bleeding during childbirth can also cause anemia, as can malaria and hookworm. (Talk to a health worker about how to prevent or treat malaria. Hookworm can be easily treated with mebendazole.)
Signs of anemia include:
- pale inner eyelids, nails and inside of lip
- weakness and feeling very tired
- dizziness, especially when getting up from a sitting or lying position
- fainting (loss of consciousness)
- shortness of breath
- fast heartbeat
To both prevent and treat anemia, try to eat foods rich in iron every day, such as dark green leafy vegetables (edible hibiscus leaves, spinach, drumstick leaves, taro leaves, cassava leaves) and also eggs and milk, raisins, molasses, and meat.
It is possible to get even more iron if you:
- eat iron-rich foods together with tomatoes or fruits such as mangoes, papayas, oranges, lemons, and limes. These all contain vitamin C, which helps your body use more of the iron in the food.
- cook food in iron pots. If you add tomatoes, lime juice, or lemon juice to the food while it is cooking, more iron from the pots will go into the food.
- add a clean piece of iron—such as an iron nail or a horseshoe—to the cooking pot. Make sure that these are made of pure iron, not a mixture of iron and other metals. Some metals, like lead, are harmful and cause birth defects.
- put a clean piece of pure iron, such as an iron nail, in a little lemon juice for a few hours. Then make lemonade with the juice and drink it.
In many places, health centers will give iron pills (ferrous sulfate) to pregnant women to prevent anemia.