Hesperian Health Guides

Main Foods and Helper Foods

Good nutrition means eating enough food and the right kind of food for the body to grow, be healthy, and fight off disease.

In much of the world, most people eat one main low-cost food with almost every meal. Depending on the region, this may be rice, maize, millet, wheat, cassava, potato, breadfruit, or plantain. This main food usually provides most of the body’s daily food needs.

By itself, however, the main food is not enough to keep a person healthy. Other ‘helper’ foods are needed to provide protein (which helps build the body), vitamins and minerals (which help protect and repair the body), and fats and sugar (which give energy).

The healthiest diets have a variety of foods, including some foods with protein, and fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals. You need only a small amount of fat and sugar. But if you have problems getting enough food, it is better to eat foods with sugar and fat than to eat too little food.

A woman does not need to eat all the foods listed here to be healthy. She can eat the main foods she is accustomed to, and add as many helper foods as are available in her area.

Helper Foods

illustration of the below: examples of helper foods shown in a circle around a group of main foods
beans, rich in protein
while not a food, clean water is necessary for good health
vegetables, rich in vitamins and minerals
fruits, rich in vitamins and minerals
nuts, a good source of protein
meat, eggs, and fish, rich in protein
milk products, rich in protein
Main Foods

Important Vitamins and Minerals

There are 5 important vitamins and minerals that women need, especially women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The 5 are: iron, folic acid (folate), calcium, iodine, and vitamin A.


Iron is needed to make blood healthy and to help prevent weak blood (anemia). A woman needs to get a lot of iron throughout her life, especially during the years she has monthly bleeding and during pregnancy.

It is possible to get even more iron if you:

It is best to eat iron foods along with citrus fruits or tomatoes. These 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 (which are high in vitamin C) to the food while it is cooking, more iron from the pots will go into the food.
a hand squeezing juice from a lemon into a glass with a nail in it
  • Add a clean piece of iron—like an iron nail or a horseshoe—to the cooking pot. These should be made of pure iron, not a mixture of iron and other metals.
  • Put a clean piece of pure iron, like an iron nail, in a little lemon juice for a few hours. Then make lemonade with the juice and drink it.

Folic acid (folate)

Avoid cooking food for a long time. This destroys folic acid and other vitamins.

The body needs folic acid to make healthy red blood cells. Lack of folic acid can lead to anemia in women and severe problems in newborn babies. So getting enough folic acid is especially important during pregnancy.


Everyone needs calcium to make their bones and teeth strong. In addition, girls and women need extra calcium:

  • During childhood. Calcium helps a girl’s hips grow wide enough to give birth safely when she is fully grown.
  • During pregnancy. A pregnant woman needs enough calcium to help the baby’s bones grow, and to keep her own bones and teeth strong.
  • During breastfeeding. Calcium is necessary for making breast milk.
  • During mid-life and old age. Calcium is needed to prevent weak bones (osteoporosis).
a woman standing under the sun, holding her hat in her hands
Sunshine will help you use calcium better. Try to be in the sun at least 15 minutes every day. Remember that it is not enough to just be outdoors. The sun’s rays must touch the skin.

To increase the amount of
calcium you get from food:
  • Soak bones or egg shells in vinegar or lemon juice for a few hours, and then use the liquid in soup or other food.
  • Add a little lemon juice, vinegar, or tomato when cooking bones for soup.
  • Grind up egg shells into a powder and mix with food.
  • Soak maize (corn) in lime (carbon ash).


Iodine in the diet helps prevent a swelling on the throat called goiter and other problems. If a woman does not get enough iodine during pregnancy, her child may be mentally slow. Goiter and mental slowness are most common in areas where there is little natural iodine in the soil, water, or food.
a woman with a large swelling on her throat

The easiest way to get enough iodine is to use iodized salt instead of regular salt.

If iodized salt or these foods are hard to get, or if there is goiter or mental slowness in your area, check with the local ministry of health to see if they can give iodized oil by mouth or by injection. If not, you can make an iodine solution at home with polyvidone iodine (an antiseptic that is often available at a local pharmacy).

To make an iodine solution to drink:

1. Pour 4 glasses of clean drinking water into a jug or jar. 2. Add one drop of polyvidone iodine.
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Store iodine at room temperature and in dark containers to protect it from light. Everyone over 7 years old should drink one glass of this iodine solution every week of her or his life. This is especially important for pregnant women and children.

Vitamin A

Dark yellow and green
leafy vegetables, and
some orange fruits, are
rich in vitamin A.
lettuce, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, and tomato

Vitamin A prevents night blindness and helps fight off some infections. Many pregnant women have problems with night blindness, which probably means that their diet lacked vitamin A before they got pregnant. The problem shows up when pregnancy places extra demands on the body.

Lack of vitamin A also causes blindness in children. By eating foods rich in vitamin A during pregnancy, a woman can increase the amount of vitamin A her baby will get in breast milk.

This page was updated:01 Feb 2021