You know how to fuel your own body. You prowl the grocery store and restaurant menus like a predator, stalking a herd of nutrients that will keep your muscles growing, your metabolism revving, your energy in high gear. You’re the python of protein, the mountain lion of minerals, the, uh, anteater of antioxidants. You know everything you need to stock your kitchen cupboard with the perfect foods that a man needs to be a man. Then she comes home with you. And suddenly, whey protein shakes and a bean burrito won’t cut it. Any man who’s loved a woman knows that satisfying her cravings in the kitchen takes the same degree of skill, the same level of selflessness as satisfying her cravings in the bedroom. And if she’s even half as interested in health and fitness as you are, you’ll score extra points for knowing what her body needs, and making sure those needs are met.
Fortunately, you don’t need a degree in nutrition or a certificate from the French Culinary Institute to do it. All you need is an understanding of the female body, and a few go-to recipes that perfectly fuel it. Bonus: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Exploring new foods on her behalf will only expand your own body’s consumption of premium nutrients.
● Cue the Calcium
“Whatever calcium a woman has in her bone bank when she hits her early 30s is for life, so it’s really important for young women to get enough,” says Cynthia Sass, R.D., author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim. To reach the recommended 1,000mg per day, choose the dairy items most dense with the mineral, such as plain yogurt (a mere half-cup delivers 415mg), part-skim mozzarella (1.5 oz delivers 333mg), and cheddar (1.5 oz for 307mg). But don’t stop at dairy: Other top sources include tofu and kale. And, of course, calcium plays a major role in building muscle and keeping body fat in check.
● Go Mega With OMEGA-3s
What aren’t these fatty acids good for? Research shows they play a crucial role in boosting brain health, reducing inflammation, and preventing chronic diseases, such as cancer and arthritis, says Rachel Meltzer Warren, R.D., owner of RMW Nutrition in New York City. Not getting an ample supply from fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and halibut—which the body absorbs more easily than plant-based sources—can increase a woman’s chances of depression. While men and women process serotonin similarly, one 2007 study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry revealed that when women experience a reduction in the neurotransmitter, their mood dramatically drops in comparison with men. (Need we point out the consequences for you?) Wild salmon, in particular, also contains the fatty acid DHA, which is essential for a healthy pregnancy (if you’re ready for that step).
● Pass the Salt
Turns out 20- and 30-something women take in the lowest levels of iodine, a trace mineral necessary for producing thyroid hormones, which help regulate metabolism. But this doesn’t mean you should dial up the salty snacks: “Interestingly, a lot of the iodine we get comes from salt, but most of the salt we get comes from processed foods, which aren’t even made with iodized salt,” Warren says. Beyond seasoning meals with table salt in moderation, also go for yogurt (it packs in the most, with 87mcg per cup) eggs, shellfish (scallops and shrimp), and strawberries.
● Iron Out Your Differences
In general, women lack iron—which wears many hats in cell function, from carrying oxygen in the blood to helping our muscles store and use oxygen—because, well, they lose it in their blood during that time of the month. With a low iron reserve, the most common nutritional deficiency in the country, you’re at risk for anemia. “If you’re not cooking for a vegetarian, your best bet is animal foods, like red meat, poultry, and fish,” Warren recommends. “It’s absorbed up to three times more efficiently than plant-based sources like spinach and black beans. If you do prep a non-animal source, pairing it with a vitamin C-rich food will enhance iron absorption.
● Take It Outside
“Vitamin D, which your skin produces when you’re exposed to sunlight, plays a pivotal role in bone health, just like calcium,” Warren says. According to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, both men and women are deficient in the vitamin, but since women face a higher risk of osteoporosis, it’s more essential for them to count their daily IU intake; 600 is recommended. Dining alfresco to soak in the rays is a good start. For foods, go for salmon (a 4 oz salmon fillet exceeds nearly twice the recommended daily amount), sardines (3 oz deliver 175 IUs), or fortified beverages like almond and soy milk. Plus, research from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that the vitamin may help ward off breast and ovarian cancers.
● “Does This Cholesterol Make Me Look Fat?”
“You can have high cholesterol when you’re only 20 years old,” warns Sass, who says the average woman should eat far less saturated fat (linked to cholesterol and heart disease) than her male counterpart. “A maximum of 10% of your daily calories should be from this,” she says, “so for the average woman that’s only 17g a day, which tallies up fast. A man could be allowed almost 10 more grams.” When choosing ground meat, reach for the 99% lean option (turkey has just 1g saturated fat per ounce) and always sauté vegetables with extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter, which saves you 5g per tablespoon.
● Fixate on Folate
Contrary to what most women think, you don’t have to be trying to get pregnant for it to be a good idea to monitor folate intake; it’s smart for females to consume plentiful amounts of the B vitamin on a regular basis. “Folate prevents pregnancy complications that can occur early, like before most women even know they’re carrying,” Warren says. “But it also plays a role in creating new red blood and skin cells.” Research from the University of Ulster in Ireland also hints that foods rich in folic acid could protect against heart disease—the number one killer of women—and strokes. Beans are your best bet: One cup of cooked lentils provides 7mg, almost 40% of the recommended daily value, and pintos and chickpeas follow suit. Beyond legumes, spinach and collard greens also deliver hefty amounts.
● Fill Up on Fiber
This nutrient helps you to stay full and slash calories, and a recent study that examined the eating habits of 20,000 Swedish residents reveals that it also protects against heart disease, particularly in women. Eating more high-fiber foods also makes women less likely to be diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common digestive disorder that affects more women—typically those below age 35—than men. Ditch refined grains (such as white pasta and bread) for whole ones, like brown rice, bulgur, or— your best bet—farro, an ancient grain that packs the most fiber into one serving: 3.5g per half-cup cooked.
● Don’t Split It and Quit It
Women store more body fat than men, so they require fewer daily calories. “Even if a man and a woman were the same height, the man would still be able to take in more calories because he has more muscle mass,” Sass explains, “and muscle mass requires more calories.” If you’re cooking a whole-grain pasta dish, a woman’s portion should be only half a cup—maybe one cup if she’s really active—while a man can afford up to two cups; for protein, three ounces (about the size of an iPhone) is sufficient for her, while you need at least double that.